What Can Labour Learn from the Biden Campaign?
Emma Burnell considers how compromise, optimistic moderation and a fundamental addressing of inequality could help Keir Starmer’s party get back into government
Joe Biden is currently given an 88% chance of winning the US Presidential Election and his approach couldn’t be more different from his opponent’s.
His has been a campaign of quiet decency. In part, the quiet has been forced on him in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. While Donald Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence have held ‘super spreader’ events across America, Biden has taken a better, safer – dare I say more presidential – approach. He has shown leadership where Trump has sowed chaos.
British politicos look across the Atlantic too often – our interest in American politics can lead to us misinterpreting events over there, trying to impose them on our very different country and quite different politics. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned.
The transatlantic nature of the back end of the right-wing division machine – with cross fertilisation between Trump’s early staffers and Brexiters – shows that the right-wing are determined to stand behind Trump and Boris Johnson (or ‘Britain Trump’ as the President called him) and any other populist who can deliver their low regulation, low standard, low politics agenda. That means there is an urgent need to beat the right-wing populists and rebuild from the ashes of their defeat.
So what can the UK left learn from Joe Biden’s campaign?
If it loses, not much. But let’s assume that doesn’t happen.
Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer and Biden are very different characters, though they have a few areas of commonality. Both try determinedly to sit at the centre of their party, economically and socially. For Biden, this has meant moving to keep up with the centre-ground of his party while still somewhat defining himself against Bernie Sanders and his supporters. For Starmer, that meant serving under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and then moving the party in a new direction once he took control. Both are trying to unite fractious factions while stamping their own authority. It is unclear yet how successful either will ultimately be.
Biden has largely brought Sanders and his supporters inside the tent in meaningful ways around policy. They worked together on a strong offer on climate change and other key parts of the Democratic platform.
Starmer has concentrated not on policy but on projecting a renewed sense of competence and assuring the British public that it can trust him and, by extension, Labour again. That has meant making a decisive break with the past – shown last week in Corbyn’s suspension from Labour following the publication of an Equality and Human Rights Commission report into anti-Semitism in the party.
If Starmer is to learn from how Biden and Sanders have come together to fight a common enemy, he will have to start with policy – but this will need to be communicated in a completely different way. Starmer needs voices on his side that can embrace the kind of economic ideas coming from the more interesting corners of the left and sell them as a common sense response to our broken economy – not a revolution that appeals to the few, but to the many.
The Prime Minister and his right-hand-man Dominic Cummings won a referendum and an election through promising ‘disruption’. Four years ago, Trump did the same. Why this happened has been exposed ever further through the pandemic. Both the UK and the US are deeply divided, unequal countries in which the system does not work for the majority of people. The anger this gave birth to was for a long time lost in a fog of non-voting and apathy until it exploded in acts of cultural or economic shock such as electing Trump or voting for Brexit.
There need to be fundamental answers to this from the Labour Party, but ones which fit in a world that is sick and tired of being sick and tired. The Coronavirus may have eased by the time the 2024 General Election comes round, but we will be dealing with the fall-out for a generation. Just as the issues we face now with our economy were exacerbated by the 2008 financial crash and the decade of cuts that followed, the Government’s response to this economic crisis is likely to continue to set the country up for austerity for another decade.
Biden has realised that compromise between the left and the electorate, with a face of compassion and moderation and an agenda more ambitious than anything offered in years, is the best way to offer a united front to Trump. That combination may be the most valuable lesson Starmer can learn. All these elements will be essential to any future Labour victory.