Keir Starmer should learn from Joe Biden about how to beat Republican-inspired, populist Conservatives – Henry McLeish
Despite a seriously impressive lead in the opinion polls, or maybe because of it, Labour leader Keir Starmer continues to fend off questions about what is Labour for, why is he rowing back on progressive commitments, isn’t this the time to tackle grotesque inequalities, and how does he confront a Conservative party, moving to the right on a platform of populist ideas, culture wars, and assaults on democracy – the 2016 Brexit-Trump winning formula.
Witnessing an economy in crisis, the hollowing out of public services and an Exchequer gripped by austerity, Starmer has every reason to be cautious. But there are dangers in this strategy, so maybe it is time to look at President Joe Biden’s approach in the US, as the Democrats confront the Republican party, now the model of much conservative thinking in the UK.
American political commentator Fareed Zakaria has said “there is evidence that a strong dose of policy can triumph over populism”. In a similar vein, US historian Heather Cox Richardson said she was “struck by how completely the Republican Party which began in the 1850s… has developed into a group of chaos agents feeding voters a fantasy world”, mirroring much of what is happening in Britain.
Biden’s deep Irish roots may make him instinctively mistrustful of the Sunak government. Recent meetings between Labour frontbenchers and key Biden advisers in Washington suggest a warmer relationship may be possible with a Labour government, on trade, economic and green issues.
The president has described the threat posed by Republicans to democracy and their support for Maga-Trump extremists as “medium fascism”, a clumsy term, but a point well made. Framing this nightmare in such dramatic terms has allowed Biden to move on from populism to concentrate on policy. Fanatics and culture warriors such as Home Secretary Suella Braverman should be considered in such terms because they are in the ascendency in their party: like Trump, once a virus takes hold it is very hard to shift.
Biden’s approach to climate change and the green revolution focuses on the green economy, job creation and the very real worry, hardly recognised in this country, that “you can’t sell the green revolution to people who can’t afford it”, as so effectively put by Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian. By using the Inflation Reduction Act, backed by vast investment, Biden is addressing the cost-of-living consequences of dealing with this existential threat to our planet and providing a positive account of unprecedented change ahead, but where help is on its way. Unlike our government, Biden is willing to prioritise, spend, borrow and selectively tax to secure a new future.
Speaking on June 28 at the Old Post Office building in downtown Chicago, in what was described by the White House as a “historic speech”, Biden launched a new economic vision for the US, highlighting his intention to build the economy “from the middle out and the bottom up instead of just the top down”. He added: “It is a fundamental break from the economic theory that has failed America’s middle class (our working class) for decades now.” He denounced “trickle-down economics”, the idea that cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations while shrinking public investment and education will nurture the economy.
Biden’s assault on this conventional economic wisdom, dominant in the US and the UK since the 1980s, reflects his view that working people were never helped by this thinking. Former presidents Franklin Roosevelt and his distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, were acknowledged by Biden as putting “ordinary Americans at the heart of the nation” and calling for “a government that protected them, rather than an economic elite”.
These presidents introduced the ideas of a “new deal” and a “square deal”. Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, said in 1910: “I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”
In his Post Office speech, and in others, Biden has called for higher taxation of extreme wealth in America. In Britain, this is long overdue. A recent report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said that “a modest wealth tax would raise £10 billion – a levy on the wealthiest 0.3 per cent”. Maybe not for now, but surely the debilitating levels of income and wealth inequality in the UK, which are holding this country back, at least deserve a “national conversation” about their worth and relevance. Tory “levelling up” is a cruel deceit, a form of ‘let them eat cake’ politics: delusion and dishonesty dressed up as destiny.
Biden has created a “Building a Better America Agenda”, using the Inflation Reduction Act and other legislation as the vehicles of change to “unleash an unprecedented level of public and private sector investment”, according to the Centre for American Progress. Starmer, modelling his ideas on “Bidenomics”, should not delay the introduction of his £28 billion-a-year green spending plan. The climate crisis requires an interventionist state.
An essay, called “The Choice Before the Labour Party”, written nearly 100 years ago by one of Labour’s finest philosophers, RH Tawney, described the greatest weakness of the British Labour party as “its lack of creed”. For Tawney creed was not about strategy, manifesto commitments, policy, or detail, it was about “what kind of country” and “what is the right [moral] thing to do”.
There is, he said, a “void in the mind of the Labour party which leads us into intellectual timidity, conservatism and conventionality, which keeps policy trailing in the rear of realities”. It makes sense to give the Tories no electoral hostages and prove Labour’s economic competence, but this should not diminish or erase Labour’s historical commitment to a long overdue new deal for working people.
Henry McLeish is a former First Minister of Scotland and a visiting professor at the University of South Florida
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