‘Labour has looked to Biden for ideas. Could he also have learnt from Starmer?’

Ed Owen
© Drop of Light/Shutterstock.com

Among the unlikeliest of the 16,000 basketball fans that filed into the Capital One Arena in Washington DC on a freezing Monday evening last month to cheer on the local Wizards against the Detroit Pistons were a group of seven of Labour’s top parliamentary candidates.

The PPCs, all standing in battleground seats from Dover to Glasgow, were over here in the US on a four-day trip to swap notes on winning over swing voters and to hear first-hand from Democrat politicians and officials about the impending Presidential and congressional elections in November.

They are certainly not the first crop of British politicians to seek advice and inspiration on this side of the Atlantic. But the fact that general elections in both countries are set to take place this year, possibly within days of each other, gave this pilgrimage – organised by Progressive Britain and the US-based Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) – a particular edge and purpose.

Some critics think Biden should have confronted the liberal left

Yet, ironically, with President Biden trailing Donald Trump – the soon-to-be anointed Republican candidate after primary victories in Iowa and New Hampshire – by up to six points in one recent opinion poll, many Democrats are now asking themselves whether they might have been in a stronger position if they had followed the experience of Labour and Keir Starmer.

While most Democrats are publicly rallying around Biden, some are privately despairing of how, through a combination of poor political strategy and personal misjudgments, he appears to have lost the confidence of a significant number of key swing voters he won in 2020.

Foremost among these mistakes, these critics allege, was the President’s willingness to indulge rather than confront the liberal left of the Democrat Party as represented by former rivals Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Both are kept close, and some of their leading advisers were brought into the administration’s ranks at its outset.

This liberal left grouping remains highly critical of the so-called “neoliberal” policies of previous Democrat administrations under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who are accused of having pursued economic policies that served the interests of Wall Street rather than the wider public.

Trashing your party’s record in office is bad politics

Yet, despite serving as Vice President for eight years in the Obama administration, Biden has often appeared to side with the Warren/Sanders worldview. Indeed, only last April, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan made a keynote speech that implicitly dumped on the economic philosophy of previous Democratic Presidents.

Trashing your party’s record in office is bad politics as Ed Miliband discovered in 2015, and PPI’s president Will Marshall agrees. “Is it really necessary to debate progressives again over Bill Clinton’s legacy?” he wrote last month. “With a vengeful Donald Trump thrashing about our political waters like a blood-frenzied shark, it seems like a distraction. What’s more, the left’s revisionist history of the Clinton years strikes me as a facile exercise in presentism – reinterpreting the past to score present-day ideological points.”

Biden’s critics argue, that having been elected in 2020 as a bipartisan President (not least winning votes from Republicans and independents who could not stomach another Trump term), he has too often sought to govern in a partisan way driven more by a desire to avoid being attacked from the left than from the right.

“Keir Starmer has shown that when you stand firm with the concerns of real voters and take on the minority interests pursued by the left, you win the public’s trust and confidence,” one centrist Democrat observed recently. “This was a lesson we had to learn through the 80s and 90s but is one that appears now to have been forgotten.”

Biden has not been seen to be addressing voters’ key concerns

This strategic weakness has been compounded by what many see as Biden’s unwillingness or inability to address or connect with voters on the key issues of the day, notably the cost of living and immigration.

High inflation has undoubtedly hurt the administration and, while there have been significant falls in the last months, there are fears that long-term, transformational measures such as the Inflation Reduction Act – which invests more than $600bn into the clean energy transition – come at a time when many swing voters believe that public spending needs to be reined back, not least after the significant increase in government intervention during Covid.

Similar questions are being raised within the Labour leadership about the party’s £28bn green investment commitment. As a keen observer of US politics, Rachel Reeves has seen how Bidenomics has failed to land effectively with the American public since her very public embrace of the President’s economic policies when she was in the US in May last year.

Immigration continues to be a major public concern too, with “encounters” on the US-Mexico border last year numbering 2.5 million – the highest level for more than 20 years. As with higher prices, it’s an issue that a President who prides himself on understanding the concerns of middle America has been oddly detached and absent from.

Biden’s experience shows the challenge ahead for Starmer’s Labour

There’s still nine months to go until the US elections, and the combination of a strong and improving economy and Trump’s legal battles offers hope to Democrats that they can still win a second term with Biden.

But, after four days speaking to Democrats on the Hill and in the state legislature of Virginia, the visiting group of Labour PPCs returned to the UK both with a stark view of the task ahead for the Democrats and a renewed sense of purpose of what is required in the UK.

“Looking at US politics is pretty sobering for anyone tempted to get carried away about Labour’s poll lead,” said Kirsty McNeill, the party’s candidate in Midlothian. “The President’s colossal policy achievements are not translating into political support and our US trip was to help us work out why.

“The main conclusion I’ve drawn is that winning the election means getting to base camp – scaling the mountain of getting sustained support for our ambitious missions is the actual task. Keir’s reminders we should have zero complacency about the ease of either winning or governing in these conditions was brought into sharp relief in DC.”

Like US politics, the basketball match she and colleagues attended turned out to be a close-run thing, or at least it was until the last period when the bottom-of-the-table Pistons edged clear to beat the Wizards 129-117. Let’s hope the Washington incumbents in the White House do better when it comes to the election in November.

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