Monday, 28 September 2015

The British Labour Party: finding a form of leadership with a great pedigree

Leadership, if it means anything, is about finding a way to persuade people to come with you to somewhere they may not, initially, have thought they wanted to go.

That’s something that many in the Labour Party need to ponder. They point out, correctly, that a great many people in Britain are inclined towards the right wing, whether it’s towards the unpleasantly right wing Conservatives, or the even nastier right wing UKIP. They are equally correct that Labour needs to win some of those people back if it is to have a chance to form a government again.

Where they’re wrong is in assuming that this means we have to adopt the same policies: ape the Tories on austerity, or UKIP on xenophobia. That’s followership. Leadership is persuading them to try a different approach.

Abraham Lincoln was one of the world’s greatest political leaders. There were two particularly admirable characteristics to his politics: the ability to bring people with him, and the capacity to listen, learn and adapt, without abandoning principles.

On the first of these, he applied with consummate skill the notion that the trick, in leading people, is to stay in front, but also to stay in touch. In the immortal words of The West Wing, a leader without followers is just a man out for a stroll. 

So, though Lincoln always abominated slavery, and never gave way on the fundamental point that it should not be allowed to expand beyond the area in which it already existed, he was more than prepared to compromise with the slaveholding south to the extent of not pursuing immediate abolition throughout the US and by toying with notions of compensated emancipation: buying slaves to free them.

On occasions, he even fought election campaigns without mentioning slavery at all, if he felt it would hinder his or his party’s progress to speak out.

That strikes me as entirely legitimate, because what he never did, was endorse the positions of the other side. Never did he support slavery. In that respect, his position is in stark contrast with that of certain Labourites who advocate adopting a Conservative position on, say, cuts in benefits in the hope of attracting Tory voters. That’s wrong in principle, and it’s ineffective in practice: why would anyone vote for a party imitating the Tories? If they want those policies, they’ll vote for the real thing. The trick isn’t to go along with it, it’s to wean them from those views.

The Lincoln position isn’t easy. It leads to accusations of betrayal or of trimming, and Lincoln certainly faced his share of them. But in the end, it was he and not the radical abolitionists who ensured that the 13th amendment to the US constitution, banning slavery completely, was adopted. He temporised, he sometimes forbore to speak, but eventually he achieved what the abolitionists had always wanted but hadn’t been able to implement by more direct means.

He did that by sometimes judiciously shelving the slavery question, while he focused on the overriding issue of his time: saving the union of the United States. Success in that struggle led to success on slavery too.

When it comes to Lincoln learning, it’s fascinating to see how his position changed on Black equality. While he always hated slavery, it’s clear that initially he didn’t believe that Black and White could coexist, and backed the notion of “colonisation”: sending freed Blacks to their own nation, in Africa or possibly in Central America.

However, as events unfolded, he found himself evolving with them. During the Civil War, he was won round to the notion that Black free men could serve in the Army; eventually he accepted that they should be paid the same as their White counterparts; not long before his assassination he had gone so far as to accept that the “most intelligent” Blacks (whatever that means) and any who’d borne arms for the Union, should be allowed the vote.

He was still a long way from a whole-hearted endorsement of equal rights and universal suffrage (not even all White men had the vote, and of course no women did). But had he lived, how far might he have gone?

John McDonnell (left) and Jeremy Corbyn
Following in the steps of Lincoln?
Given my view of what true leadership is, I’ve been fascinated by the way Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and John McDonnell as shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, have been behaving. They have left issues such as getting out of NATO, of doing away with the British nuclear deterrent, of leaving the EU, to negotiation with other Labour leaders, with whom they often disagree.

Like Lincoln, they’re focusing on the key issue. John McDonnell said it in his first Conference speech in his new shadow post: “austerity isn’t an economic necessity, it’s a political choice.”

Yes. That’s the first issue we need to take on. There’s a stultifying and deeply damaging consensus across most of Europe, that the correct response to the financial crash of 2008 is to cut government spending and inflict terrible suffering on the most vulnerable. As McDonnell also said, that is to make the victims pay for the crash instead of the perpetrators.

That view is beginning to be questioned in European nation after European nation. It’s a huge step forward that one of the main parties in one of the major European economies is taking up that cause. That’s the one to focus on for now, leaving others on the back burner – certainly, the more contentious ones that would split the party and make it less likely to achieve its main goal.

Once we’ve dealt with austerity, we could perhaps move on to the other urgent question, which has to be climate change.

Then we can look at NATO and nuclear weapons. And who knows? If the people are moving with us on the top priorities, they may well move with us on the others.

But that takes leadership. So far Labour’s looking a bit like Lincoln. And that’s promising.

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