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Is Joe Biden the best Labour leader the party never had?

Democrats have traditionally found themselves to the right of Britain’s Labour Party, but that is no longer the case, Richard Hall writes

Tuesday 26 September 2023 19:45 BST
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<p>U.S. President Joe Biden speaks next to Shawn Fain, President of the United Auto Workers (UAW), as he joins striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) on the picket line outside the GM's Willow Run Distribution Center, in Bellville, Wayne County, Michigan, U.S., September 26, 2023</p>

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks next to Shawn Fain, President of the United Auto Workers (UAW), as he joins striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) on the picket line outside the GM's Willow Run Distribution Center, in Bellville, Wayne County, Michigan, U.S., September 26, 2023

The centre of gravity in American politics can be confusing to the British eye. Here is a country with which we share culture and language, and like us is dominated by two main parties, ostensibly of the left and right. But that is only half the story.

The Conservative Party has much more in common with the Democratic Party than it does with the Republicans, especially on social issues. What passes for the centre-right in London would be seen as centre-left in Washington DC, and it follows that the Democratic Party has traditionally been situated to the right of its supposed counterpart, the Labour Party.

That has been the natural order of things for some time. But we are living through a historical anomaly. Today, the current occupant of the White House — a centrist by American standards — is governing to the left of Labour’s prime minister-in-waiting, Keir Starmer.

This much has become apparent in recent weeks as Mr Biden has taken bolder steps to demonstrate his support of unions and the labour movement at a time when the Labour Party, which was founded by unions, seems to be pulling in the opposite direction.

Biden tells auto workers they 'deserve a raise' at Detroit picket line

On Tuesday, Biden will become the first ever US president to visit a picket line when he joins striking auto workers in Michigan. As The New York Times noted in its coverage, there is “little to no precedent for a sitting president joining striking workers on a picket line.” Presidential scholars are looking back as far as 1902, to Theodore Roosevelt inviting striking coal workers to the White House, for a comparative embrace.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Labour leader Keir Starmer (named after Labour’s founder, trade unionist Keir Hardie) has been distancing himself from the very unions that founded the party he now leads. Last year, he criticised members of his own party for visiting striking nurses, telling Sky News that “you can’t sit around the cabinet table and then go to a picket line.” During that same strike, which came amid a cost of living crisis, Starmer refused to give even vocal support to the nurses, who were asking for a pay rise to reflect rising costs caused by inflation.

Of course, these are two different leaders building their own unique coalition of voters, a process that requires strategy and messaging. But it’s worth stopping to examine the implications of this shift and what it means for both leaders.

Labour’s break with the unions did not start with Starmer. It was Tony Blair, the architect of New Labour, who felt it necessary to reject his party’s founding purpose in an appeal to conservative voters and business. Starmer, it appears, has banked on a similar path to power.

Biden could have easily gone the same way. His selling point to the American electorate in the run-up to the 2020 election was his experience and his centrism, but his policies sounded positively Old Labour. During the campaign, he pledged to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” and with his visit to the picket line on Tuesday, looks set to make good on that pledge.

That’s not where the departure from New Labour orthodoxy ends. One dividing line between right and left that has traditionally been the same on both sides of the Atlantic has been on the issue of spending versus austerity, or big government versus private enterprise. Here, the Conservatives share the view of Republicans that business does it better. The party’s austerity programme was the defining economic policy of the last decade, a path that entrenched inequality and led to a decline in living standards for many Britons. For years, Labour campaigned on an end to austerity (indeed, Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, was both pro-union and anti-austerity, but that’s another story), but Starmer has been less forceful on the matter, declaring: “I’m against austerity. But I know we’re going to have to be fiscally disciplined.”

Again, Biden the centrist might have gone the same way, but instead, he campaigned on a promise to deliver massive government investment in infrastructure and healthcare, and he has largely delivered. The $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package he passed in his first months in the White House, which included direct cash payments, tax credits that could cut child poverty in half and a significant expansion of healthcare subsidies, was described by Bernie Sanders as "the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working people in the modern history of this country.” He also passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law that directed billions to states and local governments to upgrade outdated roads, bridges, transit systems and more.

There are, of course, plenty of areas where Biden has disappointed progressives — immigration and crime to name but two, but on the core principles that once defined the Labour Party, he must look to some in the party like the best prime minister they never had. 

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