Saturday, 6 August 2016

Corbyn, leadership – and Lincoln

The British Labour Party’s tearing itself apart in a contest to choose a new leader, Owen Smith – or possibly to re-elect the existing one, Jeremy Corbyn. 

For many, the dispute is about principle or policy, but in reality it’s about something far more fundamental. It’s about leadership itself, which is hard to define, but easy to spot when we see it. And one historical figure has shown it far more powerfully than any other.

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential nomination of the Republican Party, he started as far from the front-runner.

That position belonged to William Seward, who’d taken a strong position against slavery, the most controversial issue in the United States at the time. Another candidate, Salmon Chase of Ohio, had been even more strongly outspoken, and had the backing of the abolitionists within the party. The Republican Party was, however, new and had been formed by disparate, sometimes incompatible trends; the conservative faction, inclined to preserve the Republic’s traditions, even at the cost of retaining slavery, had its in Edward Bates, from the slave state of Missouri.

The most powerful expression of leadership
Despite his personal abhorrence of the institution, Lincoln’s position on slavery was that it had to be tolerated where it was already established, but it should not, on any account, ever be allowed to extend into any of the new territories of the still expanding United States.

Lincoln was initially in poor second place to Seward. But the latter, as well as enthusiastic supporters, had also made numerous enemies within the Republican Party. As supporters of other candidates switched, Lincoln closed the gap, overtaking him and winning the nomination on the third ballot.

At a time when it was regarded as inappropriate for candidates to campaign on their own behalf, Lincoln had to depend on others to canvass for him. In what is an extraordinary tribute to his generosity, no one campaigned more extensively than Seward. He started with a nine-state tour, addressing huge rallies; he ended with an intense campaign in his own state of New York, without which Lincoln might have been denied his victory.

If Lincoln wasn’t campaigning, that didn’t mean he was uninvolved. From his home in Springfield, he directed operations throughout the country, gave newspaper interviews and decided the content of the campaign. He kept himself astonishingly well-informed, as one visitor discovered to his consternation. Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the tale in her highly readable book, Team of Rivals: “I found that he was more conversant with some of our party performances in Oneida County than I could have desired.”

On campaign content, his view was that he would say nothing more than he had already published. But he was careful about the messages others were communicating. In another passage, Goodwin tells us:

John Wentworth, now the mayor of Chicago, was continually making references to an argument the party was trying to avoid – that a Republican win would bring an eventual end to slavery altogether. Knowing Wentworth was set to introduce Seward [at a public meeting], Lincoln asked the New Yorker to reassure the audience that Republicans “would not interfere with slavery where it already existed.” Seward readily agreed… In distancing themselves from Northern abolitionists, the Lincoln team was far more concerned with reassuring Northern conservatives than with conciliating the South.

A brilliantly-run campaign, to which Lincoln was able to recruit even his most powerful recent foe, with judicious use of silence or at least moderation on the key issue of the day, won Lincoln the presidency.

One of his first official actions was to form a Cabinet. As Secretary of State, the most senior position, he appointed William Seward. As Secretary of the Treasury, the second, he chose Salmon Chase and as Attorney General, Edward Bates. So all three his rivals for the Republican nomination were in his Cabinet.

The other four posts in the then seven-strong government went to Democrats. Not just rivals, but opponents of his party. With just one change, the appointment of Edwin Stanton, also a Democrat, as Secretary of War, Lincoln had the team that would help him win the Civil War for the Union – one of the most effective Cabinets the US has seen.

As the nation descended into civil war, Lincoln’s discretion on slavery proved invaluable once more. It was instrumental in keeping four slave states in the Union, and out of the Confederacy. And that was crucial to victory.

What about the question of slavery itself?

In January 1865, just months before he was murdered, Lincoln engineered the passage by Congress of the 13th Amendment banning slavery from the US for ever. Something he could never have done without winning the presidency and then the Civil War, by then all but over.

The lesson for us?

The road to political success is often a tortuous one. It takes a great deal of ingenuity, even deviousness, to follow it. It’s not enough to grab a megaphone and keep blaring out the message, however principled it may be, or even right. Sometimes, a little silence is far more effective.

You also have to use the political structures in which you live to bring in the changes you know are needed. Lincoln built a cabinet that maximised support for his government; he worked with Congress to build majorities for the measures he knew had to be passed; and because he handled the issue with care, he exorcised the great bane, slavery, that had poisoned his country at its roots since its foundation.

It’s too much to ask that Labour today finds itself a leader of the calibre of a Lincoln. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable that we set that kind of leadership as a benchmark to aspire to. And, sadly, our present leader, unable to win the support even of his own parliamentary colleagues, falls far below that standard.


Charles James said...

I think that even Lincoln would have struggled had two of the three opponents refused to serve under him and had a significant proportion of his own side relentleesly briefed against him and tried to get him to resign.

Anonymous said...

Well said it's simple a leader is what is required, so why is it so difficult. I think the reason is that the party has been hijacked, and it's true public supporter heart pulled out. Maybe Wurzle Gummige also had a few supporters and would also have never ever been a leader, there is a similarity.

Anonymous said...

Charles the difference is that that would have never ever happened with Lincoln because he was a leader it's as simple as that.

David Beeson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Beeson said...

Curiously, Salmon Chase never lost his ambition to be President and spent the next three years plotting to cheat Lincoln of re-election, and to win the White House for himself. Another astonishing aspect of Lincoln's behaviour was how he again and again outmanoeuvred Chase, most notably when Chase had whipped up opposition among Republican senators (quite a parallel, you see, Charles) and Lincoln invited Chase to attend a meeting at the White House, to which he had also, unbeknown to Chase, invited representatives of the disgruntled Senators. When Chase wouldn't repeat to his face what he'd said behind Lincoln's back, Lincoln was able to defuse the plot.

Even more surprisingly, he kept Chase in office until the moment when he felt it was the right time, for Lincoln not Chase, to part with him.

Even then, the next year, he appointed Chase Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He said the decision was painful to him, but he made it because it was the right choice for the country.

That was Chase. But Seward, Bates, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of War Stanton became firm friends and supporters – from being opponents. He won men round. And he didn't wait nine months to do it, giving his adversaries time to organise, and his other colleagues time to lose confidence in him.

Edwin Stanton, Democrat, was at Lincoln's bedside when his breathing stopped. "Now he belongs to the ages," said Stanton, in one of the most moving and appropriate tributes to a great man.

I wish Corbyn could learn from him.

David Beeson said...

Thank you both (or all three, if 'Anonymous' covers two separate people), for your feedback - that's always appreciated.