What the UK Left Can—and Can’t—Learn from Biden’s Victory

In America, President Biden rode anti-incumbent sentiment to victory. Labour candidate Keith Starmer will need more than that to win over British voters.

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James Butler

Over the years, political environments in the U.S. and U.K. have often moved in tandem: Clinton and Blair were elected in the 90s promising a “third way” style of politics, Brexit and Donald Trump delivered unexpected blows to the establishment in 2016, and more recently, comparisons have been made between their respective leaders as Trump and Boris Johnson governed simultaneously until the former’s defeat at the hands of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Some saw Biden’s victory as vindication of the Democrats’ choice to have a more moderate standard-bearer who could appeal to a broader group of voters, while still embracing some of the more ambitious policies of those on the left of the party. Less than a year prior, many viewed Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat to Johnson in the UK general election—the Labour Party’s worst showing in over 80 years—as a failure of the opposite approach. Corbyn’s more radical leadership inspired a wave of enthusiastic activism within the party but deterred a crucial portion of the electorate whose votes were essential to defeating the conservatives. Corbyn’s successor is Keir Starmer, who was part of his shadow cabinet but, like Biden, is perceived to be more of a moderate.

Deflating hopes that Starmer might be able to follow Biden’s playbook and lead Labour back into power, the vast majority of recent polls have the Conservatives ahead, with their current advantage at about five points. Naturally, questions have been raised about Starmer’s inability to overhaul the Tories’ lead thus far. Is this approach less likely to work in the UK, or does Starmer lack the experience to replicate Biden’s victory? It helps first to examine what made Biden successful, with one of the factors being his characterization of Trump as an imminent threat to the U.S. and its democracy. He was able to point to the death toll that resulted from Trump’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as his support of white nationalists in Charlottesville, and his refusal to declare he would accept defeat should he lose the election.

Johnson certainly competes with Trump in pandemic-handling incompetency, flip-flopping on lockdowns and travel restrictions. However, he is also regarded as generally socially liberal within his party, and astutely uses his personality as his brand in a way that can distract from policy debate. He is also supportive of action to tackle climate change and broadly promotes an optimistic vision for the UK’s future. Herein lies Starmer’s challenge: a strategy built solely on highlighting the mistakes and dangers of the current PM is not enough to win. It will always be difficult to convince British voters that being anti-Boris is enough of a reason to switch to Labour in the way that U.S. voters were persuaded to vote for Biden in 2020 mainly due to their opposition to Trump. This is in part due to a stronger attachment to parties in the U.K. More voters view the election as a contest primarily between two parties with defined sets of principles who are represented by their leaders, rather than one between individuals who happen to represent parties.

Johnson and Trump may share a haircut and a tendency to strongly divide public opinion, but the Tory poll lead would suggest that not enough voters disapprove of the PM to hand Labour the keys to Number 10. Not to mention that there are other parties for conservatives to switch to—the Liberal Democrats for moderates, and Reform UK for the hard Brexiteers—unlike in the U.S’s rigid two-party system.

Starmer will almost certainly require a bold, well-defined policy vision of his own if he is to win the day. Part of the criticism of Corbyn was that the sheer number of policies in his 2019 manifesto shifted the debate toward the economic viability of his program, rather than the merits of the policies themselves. Starmer campaigned in the leadership election last year with pledges that included a “Green New Deal,” increasing income tax on the top 5% of earners, and nationalising services such as rail, energy, and water. Having backed away from this vision in the name of electability, it is time Starmer recognized recent polling as a signal to put policy front and center in his messaging. It is easy to look back on Blair’s three election victories and think that it was a shift toward the centre that propelled him to power, but policies like the national minimum wage, sure start centers for the improvement of childcare and early education, and record levels of healthcare funding were at the heart of New Labour’s success.

The Republican victory in the Virginia Governor’s race just this week serves to demonstrate that when voters perceive there to be a lack of meaningful policy passed by the party in power, they will show their frustration at the ballot box. For Biden, more legislative achievements will be needed to stay in power; for Starmer, at least the promise of substantial change is likely to be necessary to get elected. Voters are more often pulled to the left with policy than pushed by the actions of the right, and Starmer ought to be cautious in assuming that Biden’s victory is anything other than an exception to the rule.⬩

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