Joe Biden Shows Keir Starmer the Path to Victory

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The election of Joe Biden, a determinedly moderate U.S. centrist, is of more than symbolic importance to Keir Starmer, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party. Locked in battle with leftist militants — the stubborn residue of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, who was resoundingly defeated by Boris Johnson in an election a year ago — Starmer aims to emulate the president-elect’s achievement of fending off the radical wing of the Democratic Party to turn defeat into success.

The parallels go further. Neither Biden nor Starmer was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and both men know what it’s like to cope with misfortune. Biden’s father suffered severe financial setbacks in the 1950s, and was often unemployed. Later, the young Joe was afflicted by family tragedy.

Starmer also had it tough as a child. He has spoken recently about how his mother suffered a life-threatening chronic disease. His taciturn, hardworking father was worn out caring for her. The Labour leader pitches himself as champion of the underdog; like Biden, rising as a lawyer and a politician via grit and determination.

Welcoming the president-elect’s victory in an article for the Guardian, Starmer stressed that “the Democrats’ path to victory was paved by a broad coalition, including many of the states and communities that four years ago turned away from them.” 

He knows Labour must rebuild its own fractured coalition too, but it won’t be easy. The center-left parties must solve the same electoral conundrum: They’re losing the allegiance of White working-class voters. This once dominant, but declining, section of the electorate favors center-right or even radical right parties on identity politics such as immigration, culture and nationalism.

A matching movement in the other direction also has identity politics at its heart. Clustered in cities and university towns are a growing number of middle-class graduates, decidedly liberal on race, gender and migration. They believe prejudice and nationalism are the chief source of their countries’ ills. 

Demographics suggest the future may lie with a coalition of those culturally liberal voters and the broader ethnic-minority population, but in the short term, no leftish leader can win without the support of a substantial section of its older core voters as well. How to square the two voting blocs?

Despite losing the election, Donald Trump still rallied a record number of voters behind his call to Make America Great Again. Last December, millions of White working-class people deserted Labour in the U.K. general election largely because the Conservatives played the patriotism card under the slogan of “Get Brexit Done.” Labour was led then by Corbyn, a left-wing internationalist who seemed more devoted to the cause of Cuba than Carlisle. It was the party’s worst defeat since 1935.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Democrat primary voters selected Biden as the candidate who could rise above identity politics. Starmer must follow this lead. His opportunity is that with Brexit “done” by the New Year and immigration diminishing in voters’ concerns, competence and economics — rather than culture wars — will come to the fore. 

Starmer’s party offers an ugly example of where identity politics can lead you, with far-left members often using their support for oppressed Palestinians to justify blatant anti-Semitism. On his first day as leader, Starmer publicly apologized for “the grief” caused to Jewish people by Labour’s failure to tackle the problem under Corbyn. He promised to “tear out this poison by its roots.”

Ending this unwelcome association with political anti-Semitism — “the socialism of fools,” as the 19th century German Social Democrat August Bebel described it — is a huge challenge for the new Labour leader. As well as dismaying Britain’s quarter of a million Jewish people, this tendency within the party has repelled voters generally.

It’s an example of the way powerful cultural issues can weigh on a leader. Starmer is keen to be heard on the economic impact of Covid, fruitful territory given that the British economy has suffered its worst contraction since the Great Frost of 1709 and unemployment is rising fast. Starmer has been a strong performer when attacking the government’s costly failure to develop an effective track and trace system and its suspicious awards of health procurement contracts to a “chumocracy.”

He has on occasion proved more prescient than the government, not least in calling for “a circuit break” back in early October. Johnson’s loyalists dismissed the proposal as economic madness. Within weeks, however, a panicked prime minister reversed course. Once dubbed “Captain Hindsight” by Conservatives, Starmer began to look like Captain Foresight and Labour leapt to a five-point lead in the polls.

But more bitter party rows about anti-Semitism over the past two weeks — including whether Corbyn should be allowed to continue representing Labour in Parliament — have allowed Johnson’s Tories to recover their lead despite a spate of bad news stories.

The message is clear. Identity politics of a particularly toxic variety will undermine Starmer’s claim to have put Labour “under new management.” The ideology of Corbynites — anti-Israel, relentlessly hostile to the U.S. and too easily forgiving of Russia’s cynicism when it comes to territorial aggrandizements and human rights — is a politics Starmer (a human-rights lawyer by background) abhors. But like it or not, its shadow hangs over him. He must win this battle.

Labour’s recent history bears one cautionary message: Its left wing changes shape and voice, but it remains a threat to the party’s electability. Previous moderate leaders Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair saw how essential it was to inflict early defeat on their internal enemies. As any general might remind Labour’s leader, a standoff isn’t the same as a victory.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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