‘Here’s what visiting the US taught me about why progressives win or lose’

Kirsty McNeill

The Labour Party has one job in 2024: delivering Keir Starmer a majority that is deep, durable, disciplined and democratic.

Deep because, to overcome our catastrophic 2019 result, we must bring over voters from every demographic and every corner of the country.

Durable because Labour has to govern with a relentless focus on deserving a second term so that we can win era-defining change, not just history-defying swings.

Disciplined because the country needs a united team that is prepared to take a long-term view.

And, most of all, democratic because we obsess about securing both ongoing enthusiasm for – and participation in – our ambitious missions.

We visited the US to understand voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Biden

It was with this in mind that a delegation, hosted by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and Progressive Britain, travelled to the United States last week. 

We were in Washington DC and Virginia to learn from the Democrats and try to understand why voters weren’t more enthusiastic about a presidency of such extraordinary consequence

Democratic strategists, particularly those associated with PPI, are rightly focused on crafting both policy solutions and political messages that work for working people, and we were there to learn from politicians who had won or held on deep in ‘Trump country’ by securing the votes of rural, working class and non-graduate voters.

Given these races were won in districts with similar media consumption patterns to neighbouring areas, there’s no reason to believe these voters were somehow untouched by misinformation or Republican attacks.

And, at a meeting at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, we heard about how these kinds of candidates can attract less money than both the progressive social media stars and those running no-hope races against high profile Trump-endorsed Republicans, so it’s not always more resources that tip the balance.

The trip showed me the importance of direct engagement with voters

Instead, I’ve come back increasingly fixated on what we can learn from the ground games being run by these outlier candidates and their teams. 

These folk are grinding out wins in communities they don’t just represent, but truly know and love. Theirs is the politics of the porch but, in contrast, the Biden-Harris reelection campaign has focused on advertising and influencers instead of organising on the ground.

To put into context just how big a bet that is: at this stage of the cycle President Obama had 300 paid staff working across the country on the reelection campaign. President Biden has just 38.

Labour, of course, both needs and has a first-rate digital and press operation taking care of the air war. But Biden’s troubles show that to be necessary but insufficient: at a time of cratering trust in politics, progressives need to be looking our voters in the eyes, listening attentively and then working alongside them on their biggest priorities.

We must not keep the politics of ideas and of organisation separate

Real-world relationships are important not just for our electoral prospects but also because, as Keir Starmer regularly reminds us candidates, our objectives simply can’t be achieved through government action alone.

Halving violence against women and girls requires a whole-of-society effort and is as reliant on social pressure as policy changes. Likewise, our ambitions on health can only be met in more connected communities, where isolation and addiction place less pressure on our NHS. If there is a new Labour government, it is going to have to be in continuous conversation with the British people as never before. 

That’s why the day after our return from DC, I used my speech at the Fabian Society conference to call time on the split between ‘pamphlet Labour’ and ‘leaflet Labour’. This is not to denigrate the contribution of the former: I’m proud to chair a leading progressive think tank and champion our wider sector, but a key lesson of the Biden presidency is that we can no longer treat the politics of ideas and of organisation as separate spheres. 

It’s time for our whole movement to unite as ‘delivery Labour’ – relentlessly focused on delivering both our political programme and a permanent campaign that binds our voters into it. That’s the machinery Morgan McSweeney and David Evans are building in Labour – one that ensures we’re not just on people’s side but by their side, year round. If they succeed, we can both win big and deserve to.

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