©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer’s American dream

In November 2020, Labour leader of eight months Sir Keir Starmer saluted the success of his US sister party: “Congratulations to Joe Biden on his election as President of the United States of America. He ran a campaign on the values that we in the United Kingdom share — decency, integrity, compassion and strength”.

It was a significant moment. At the time, after four election defeats for the UK Labour Party and with the German SPD still languishing in opposition alongside Australia’s Labor party, centre-left parties across the world were still viewed as in something of an existential crisis. As late as May 2021, Tony Blair warned in an essay for the New Statesman: “parties of the centre and centre left are facing marginalisation, even extinction, across the Western world”.

But here was Biden who had, some months prior to Blair’s essay, managed to coalesce a winning majority for his Democratic party. And soon, progressive politics rebounded with curious simultaneity. The SPD’s Olaf Scholz became chancellor of Germany, and Anthony Albanese won in Australia in 2022. Jacinda Ardern was no longer singled out as the last social democratic survivor. The moderates, it seemed, were on the march.

As for Sir Keir Starmer’s political prospects, Labour has led the Conservatives by a double-digit margin since August 2022. With Rishi Sunak’s party viewed as tired and tail-spinning, the Labour leader is increasingly presumed as Britain’s prime minister-in-wait. Cue glossy mock-ups in Time Magazine and The Economist. Britain is considered more and more as the next stepping stone for an advancing centre-left.

Crucially, in its recent rise, Labour has held the comebacks of its sister progressive parties as shining lodestars. And of these, no vision or pitch has proved so instructive as that of Starmer’s foremost centre-left comrade: Joe Biden.

Prompted in a recent interview on Radio 4’s “PM” programme, Sir Keir explained coyly: “I’ve looked at America, we’ve looked at Germany, we’ve looked at Australia. I put my teams in these countries, looking at how they campaigned [and] how they won”. Time Magazine pursued a similar line of questioning: “We’ve got a lot to learn internationally as a Labour Party”, Starmer said, “so we study intensely the US and, particularly, the journey of Biden into office, because [the Democrats are] our sister party”.

Social democratic soulmates?

Sometimes the similarities are subtle. For example, Biden and Starmer both come from modest backgrounds, they are seen in their respective countries as steady, centrist correctives to years of populism, and they face and have faced mounting interrelated crises: a perilous economic inheritance, a worsening climate crisis and a democracy stricken by low trust. (The success of Biden’s campaign in winning back key “Blue Wall” states in 2020, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Maine, may likewise offer clues as to how Sir Keir can reconfigure his party’s traditional heartlands).

At other times, Labour’s “intense” learning process has a more overt quality. In fact Biden’s messaging, both from the campaign trail and in government, is increasingly crucial to Starmerism’s vernacular.

For example, Sir Keir’s pledge to “buy, make and sell more in Britain” mirrors Biden’s “Buy American” plan. His “mini-budget” retort that Labour will “grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out”, debuted at Labour’s annual conference in September, is taken word for word from Biden’s 2021 State of the Union address. Even his “mission-driven” approach to government (citing economic growth, clean energy, the NHS, crime and opportunity) recalls Biden’s focus on the four crises of the coronavirus pandemic, economic collapse, racial justice and climate change during his early presidency.

Oh, and as the President likes to portray himself as the heir to Franklin D Roosevelt, Keir Starmer recalls Clement Attlee as an inspiration. (Biden has certainly come a long way from stealing lines from former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, an accusation which sunk his first presidential campaign in 1987).

Progressive plagiarism

Of course, emulating a proven winner in a Whitehouse occupant is far from a new or necessarily masterful strategy. Harold Wilson evoked JFK’s “New Frontier” rhetoric when he called for a “New Britain” in the run-up to the 1964 general election; and Tony Blair was accused of “Clintonizing” his party through the 1990s.

In Clinton, Blair found a moderate centre-left paragon which he could parade before the British public. Their transatlantic kinship, as harbingers of a “third way” approach to politics, lent the New Labour project and its pivot against doctrinaire socialism some much-needed legitimacy at home. Starmer will welcome comparisons to Bidenism for the same reason: why wouldn’t a Labour leader want to share a “progressive moment” with the leader of the free world?

But beyond the pleasant optics, Biden’s 2020 campaign will prove especially enlightening as Labour looks to shake Conservative attacks as we near a general election expected in 2024.

For some time now, the Conservative Party has been accused of importing American-style right-wing politics into the Westminster arena: the moral politics of immigration, the culture wars, even voter ID — something Jacob Rees-Mogg recently suggested was akin to American-style voter suppression. But in 2020, Biden proved a progressive party can win faced with such an onslaught. He chose to frame the election as a battle for the “soul” of America, openly valorising himself as a vessel for more traditional, less adversarial politics: a necessary cleansing experience after the rigours of Trumpism. He wanted to make the case for government as a proactive role as a force for good, something Americans can look to as a source of optimism rather than resigned antipathy.

Speaking in October at the TUC Conference in Brighton, Sir Keir Starmer declared his own “Battle for the Soul of our Country”. It is messaging Sir Keir has trailed before, having in July 2021 penned an article for the New Statesman at the height of the furore over footballers “taking the knee” entitled: “The values divide between Labour and the Tories isn’t a culture war. It’s a battle for the soul of England”.

But again, beyond Starmer’s soaring paeans to England’s “soul” (which were naturally more potent during Boris Johnson’s tenure), the most important aspects of Labour’s transatlantic appropriation come on policy.

The British school of Bidenomics

In his first three years as President, Biden has combined the reassuring rhetoric of moral restoration with the largest expansion of social welfare and infrastructure investment in generations. To the surprise of many within his own party, President Biden has evinced an interest in shifting the foundational assumptions of American economic policy.

That the ideological goals of the Democratic party now permeate Starmer’s Labour Party was manifest in Rachel Reeves’ recent stateside excursion. Fresh from topping the New Statesman’s “Left Power List”, the shadow chancellor’s trip was a true progressive pilgrimage.

Ms Reeves went to Washington — not for the first time as a former economist at the UK embassy in DC — to launch Labour’s latest economic blueprint: A New Business Model for Britain. Naturally, it was a deliberate attempt to align a putative Labour administration with Biden’s.

Speaking to the Peterson Institute think tank, Reeves called for Britain to adopt “securonomics” — an awkward portmanteau of “security” and “economics”; in truth, she was advocating “Bidenomics”. Reeves joined the Biden administration in pronouncing on the end of “the old ‘Washington Consensus’” as she heralded the so-called “modern supply side” approach from Biden’s Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen.

At the core of “securonomics” and Yellen’s “modern supply side economics” is the conclusion that globalisation has failed to deliver on the terms it promised, and that Western economies must therefore adapt. In an age of economic shocks and uncertainty, Reeves and Yellen are mutually committed to re-centring the nation-state at the heart of economic policy. “It is time for us to admit that globalisation, as we once knew it, is dead”, Reeves told Washington.

The shadow chancellor also outlined how Labour would champion “a more active state, pursuing a modern industrial strategy” in government. She cited investment in digital technology through the CHIPS Act and in clean energy and industry through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) as areas where Britain should be following the US’ lead.

Reeves’ emphasis on the IRA and re-industrialisation, repeated in her A New Business Model for Britain pamphlet, underlines that — amid all the slogan cribbing — the biggest area in which Labour is seeking to emulate Biden is on energy policy.

Through a $500bn investment over ten years, Biden’s IRA is aimed at helping the US transition to a greener economy by growing the clean energy sector and supporting new jobs. Despite formidable constraints, it has emerged a core emphasis of the Biden administration — and the early signs indicate that this approach is working. In the first seven months after the IRA passed, clean energy companies announced over 100,000 new jobs across 31 US states with investments totalling $89.5 billion.

The UK government has received Biden’s green plan with pointed hostility. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has rejected Biden’s green energy investment strategy as “some distortive global subsidy race”, while energy security and net zero secretary Grant Shapps has rubbished the approach as “dangerous”.

But for Starmer, a “green” industrial strategy forms the centrepiece of Labour’s economic agenda. Through its Green Prosperity Plan, Labour has committed to an additional £28 billion in annual investment over a 10-year period, and said it would establish a state-owned green energy investment start-up in GB Energy. It is an approach that has been wrapped, unapologetically, in the Union Jack.

Starmer’s American Dream

Of course, the structures of the US economy and the levers of the Oval Office are very different from the UK. But for Starmer, his Biden-style green investment plan amounts to an acknowledgement that in some areas triangulation will not be enough. It is a vision for social democracy set in the 2020s, broken in many areas with Blair’s vision and owing much to the Democrats.

Starmer’s pitch is high and mighty on rhetoric and precise and targeted in its radicalism. In this, it is Biden — that star-spangled centrist poster boy — whom the Labour leader is channeling.