New stars, similar stripes: The next stage in the Labour-Democratic relationship

With the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, a new stage begins in the Labour-Democrat relationship. This is fantastic – with the 2020 presidential election not merely serving as a rejection of Donald Trump, but a chance for a new kind of politics. It offers those on the left a significant opportunity. Though we should acknowledge the differences in context, David Lammy was essentially correct to describe the Democrats as Labour’s spiritual ‘sister party.’ The centre left has often worked best when transnational heads come together, and we are entering a new era where that process may become more meaningful. 

After all, the collective story here is long and sustained.

In the 1930s, Labour thinkers of both left and centrist persuasion found much of use in Roosevelt’s New Deal – certainly compared to the public austerity/cheap money mush then being dolled out by Britain’s Tory led coalition. In turn, in the postwar period, JFK’s future aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr would pour much praise onto Clement Attlee’s New Jerusalem – an example of the kind of thing he hoped to see pan out in the States. Later, in 1960, Roy Jenkins followed Kennedy around the campaign trail, and hobnobbed with a New England academic set as interested in his love life as his moderate politics. The civil rights movement in America undoubtedly inspired some of Labour’s race relations legislation – led by Jenkins, who saw it as part of a more ‘civilised society’ – later that decade.

As I show in my book March of the Moderates, with increased air travel and better communications technology, all this only stepped up a gear as time went on. In the late 1980s, the then American based Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander took significant note of the reasons for Michael Dukakis’ failure to defeat George H.W. Bush. Then, most famously, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would come to ape the achievements of the Clinton administration in both content and tone (going big on tax credits, and reassuring voters on law and order). Brown’s own more ‘ordinary’ bi-lateral relationship – civil enough, but not intellectual or generational soulmates – with Barack Obama was the exception and not the rule.

Whilst we shouldn’t get too fawning and West Wing fandom about it, there are a number of lessons history offers to Keir Starmer as he seeks to broker his own dealings with the Biden administration.

The first is that Joe Biden probably does care more about Ireland than he does about Britain – though the countries’ fates are intertwined. With about one in ten Americans claiming heritage from the Emerald Isle (including the future president), this is hardly surprising. The solution here is also clear enough. As he has been doing, Keir Starmer must continue to hammer the government on the implications of the end of the transition agreement for travel and trade between both sides of the Irish border. And of course for the Good Friday agreement per se.

It has always been thus. In 1995 Clinton’s advisor Tony Lake worked up a briefing note for his boss ahead of an early meeting which noted that Blair’s ‘support for [John] Major’s Northern Ireland policy is helpful to the process.’ Lake suggested that Clinton should also find out from the then opposition leader, ‘would you do anything differently?’ 

With a reckless populist now in charge at Downing Street the issue is framed in a slightly new manner, but Starmer is hitting the right notes. If you want to look Prime Ministerial it helps to have friends, meetings and photo-ops in D.C., and the way to do that is to look sensible on Northern Ireland. This both the right thing to do and good politics.

The second issue is that – Georgia Senate run offs to be determined – Biden is odds on going to have a divided Congress. Like Newt Gingrich after the 1994 midterms, Mitch McConnell is not going to be the easiest man to deal with – but deal Biden must. Initially we will get a flurry of decent, progressive measures delivered by executive action – rejoining the Paris Climate Accord being the most obvious. But the new President will have to accommodate the other side of the aisle if he wants to get things done longer term. Bill Clinton was a master at this – securing two increases in the Federal Minimum Wage at the cost of signing a Welfare Bill he mostly, though not all the way, believed in. This non-rabid, reasonable stance secured his comfortable re-election – and stopped a Bob Dole administration which would have gutted the state on the one hand, and potentially limited the rights of women to get an abortion on the other.

Whatever this election has been, it has not been a vindication of The Squad. In short, Biden overperformed the Democratic ticket. He was a great candidate. There were areas he could not reach – Florida being one – but even here we should acknowledge the wider truth. The idea that anti-Castro Cubans were itching for Bernie Sanders (who lost the Democratic primary by 23% to 62%) is just insanity. Biden will have to deal with political reality, and a difficult Congress. Clinton didn’t panic about that scenario and nor, in turn, did his ally Tony Blair. Starmer has the strategic intelligence to do similar.

Thirdly, America is back in the world, and isolationism has been dealt a massive blow. Donald Trump’s “Charles Lindbergh with a MAGA hat” version of ‘America First’ has been fundamentally repudiated. Not only will America play a role in tackling climate change again – to be sure, limited by the above pressures – but its faith in NATO can once again be relied upon.

This is great news. Keir Starmer leads the party who helped found NATO – an organisation framed by the man Andrew Adonis has dubbed ‘Labour’s Churchill’, Ernest Bevin – and which, in the 1990s, led efforts to oust the genocidal Slobodan Milosevic. Whilst one of the few long term Trump foreign policy legacies will be to get European partners to contribute more into the collective NATO pot, Britain is already at the mandated 2% of GDP on defence spending anyway. If Biden leans into this, albeit more subtly, this need not concern Labour. Labour has won when it has been seen as patriotic, and this very much includes military matters. If voters trust you will defend the country, they’ll listen to you on the economy.

In short, British progressives have every reason to be upbeat right now. Nothing is guaranteed. The Tories may well ruthlessly axe their leader as they have done previously, and political memories are short. But we now live in a world where optimism is back, a decent human being will occupy the most important job on earth, and where Labour is led by a credible future Prime Minister. With a Covid vaccine around the corner, maybe things really can only get better?

Richard Carr is a Senior Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and author of the book March of the Moderates: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and the Rebirth of Progressive Politics, (IB Tauris, 2019). He will contribute an essay to a forthcoming Progress volume on Labour’s history and capacity for renewal. He tweets @Richard_Carr

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