In 1992, an unexpected memo arrived on the desk of Philip Gould, a senior Labour Party strategist. “Dear Phillip . . . ” it read, “Stan is anxious to meet you here in Little Rock.” “Stan” was Stanley Greenberg, a pollster for Bill Clinton. He was asking Gould to fly to Arkansas where James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and himself would advise Clinton’s upcoming presidential campaign.
That spring had been a grim one for Labour. With an increasingly marginalized Margaret Thatcher jettisoned from the Conservative leadership, Labour advisers were confident Neil Kinnock would sweep the 1992 general election. But he didn’t. The Labour leader was beaten by John Major, a “one nation” Tory who immediately got to work privatizing British Rail and passing the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act to crack down on squatters, ravers, and foxhunt saboteurs.
The 1992 election marked four consecutive losses for Labour. The party needed to change, and it was the ex-marketing types like Gould who believed they’d be the ones to do it.
According to Greenberg, Gould stayed over in Little Rock longer than he was supposed to. He ensconced himself in the Clinton war room, learning how to make center-left politics palatable to an electorate that had handed Reagan’s Republican Party three general election victories in a row.
Gould returned to the UK jubilant: he wrote pieces in the Guardian and New Statesman proclaiming the Clinton model as a third way “American Dream” that could be spread worldwide. Together with Peter Mandelson (known as the “Prince of Darkness” for his media spin and general ghoulishness), he set about remaking the party in the image of Clinton. Suddenly, the focus-grouped language of “personal touches” and “speaking the language of the working middle classes” took on high priority. The era of New Labour had begun and the party had been rerouted away from the old parliamentary left, whom Mandelson bragged he’d locked away in a “sealed tomb.”
Today, Labour faces a similar existential chasm to the one it encountered in 1992, and, like then, it’s increasingly looking to the United States.
It’s fair to say that party leader Keir Starmer is having some image problems. He was essentially pitched as “Corbyn but electable,” a former barrister with a knighthood, nice hair, and none of the baggage. This hasn’t come true, and it’s not uncommon to hear Starmer described as “a bit wet” when you’re in the pub. He’s also shown himself to be definitively not “electable,” recently losing a by-election in Hartlepool, a constituency that hasn’t been Tory since the early ’60s, and narrowly scraping a win last week in another Labour safe seat.
Desperate for answers, Starmer’s camp has been engaging in PR mimicry of Joe Biden and associating himself with the American president. “This [point down emoji]” he quote-tweeted in April in response to a Biden statement on trickle-down economics. “Let’s back Biden’s plan,” read another about the global minimum corporate tax rate; “Let’s build back better,” read another on green industry.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s recent consultation with Biden’s team looks like more copy and pasting, supposedly focusing on “work, family, and place” in language worryingly reminiscent of Starmer’s leaked branding memo alluding to “the union flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly.” Planned adaptations of Biden’s state-led investment plans could make for ambitious middle-ground policy, but its wonkish overtures will struggle to stand out from a Tory government already promising massive spending.
What’s more, Boris Johnson isn’t Trump. They may look similar, but Johnson isn’t the destabilizing agent that Trump was and the campaign that elected Biden isn’t replicable in the UK. However, there are still lessons Labour can learn from Biden’s win — but Starmer is ignoring them.
Biden beat the American left in the primaries — but he still involved Bernie Sanders in the coalition he used to beat Trump. Biden appointed Sanders to chair the Senate Budget Committee, and has since adopted versions of the Left’s ideas in his popular domestic policy. Conversely, Starmer has waged a veritable war on the Labour left since coming to be elected leader. First, he sacked Rebecca Long Bailey, who ran against him in the leadership election as Corbyn’s successor. He then removed the whip from Jeremy Corbyn himself — these measures causing major rifts within the party membership.
Starmer also did virtually nothing to mitigate the breach of trust after a leaked report revealed that Corbyn’s 2017 campaign was sabotaged by self-proclaimed “trot hunters” on the right wing of the party. This has left Starmer looking wetter than ever and disenchanted swathes of left-leaning members.
Although Biden shrouded his progressive language in ambiguous proverbs about love and memories of swimming pools, he didn’t abandon it altogether. Biden has been fairly open in support of trans rights, and his commitment to fight American racism was part of his pitch in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Starmer has shown no such concern with his comments broadly supportive of Israel during its bombardment of Gaza or through his dismissal of calls for police reform as “nonsense.”
Instead of retaining the support of some of Labour’s most active cohorts, Starmer has relied on the focus-grouped, finely tuned politics of transatlantic neoliberalism: the idea you don’t inspire voters to follow your vision but learn the demands of the voter-consumer hybrid, and tailor your vision to that. This is Gould’s legacy. It might have worked for Blair and Clinton, but it’s not what elected Biden and it’s hampering Labour’s ability to react. Starmer will take days to take a stance on issues, consistently wasting time draping himself in union jacks and curating wooden press photos of himself holding pints.
Rather than learning the political lessons of the US election, Starmer looks close to buying his own set of aviators. For some reason, he also keeps repeating the phrase “build back better,” which is a crap slogan and already used by Boris Johnson (albeit with the caveat “and bolder” at the end).
The Class Struggle Option
But there is an alternative. In 2017, Corbyn increased the Labour Party’s vote share more than any other leader since 1945; he even managed to circumvent the Brexit culture wars for an entire electoral cycle. He did this by championing the problems of everyday working people — in short, by talking about class.
Starmer is often applauded in the Guardian opinion section for his “forensic” approach to Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ) every Wednesday, but clearly this isn’t cutting through to the British public, who hardly even watch it anyway. Contrast this to Corbyn’s first PMQ, which was watched by over a million people. Corbyn started by telling a sneering Tory frontbench that, according to constituents, “Prime Minister’s Questions was too theatrical, and that Parliament was out of touch.” He then went on to act as a vehicle for “Marie’s” concerns about housing, and ask a question about tax credits from “Clare” — a part-time worker struggling to provide for her five children.
Although the public narrative of Brexit was mostly allowed to be shaped by opportunistic investment bankers, it was incredibly successful because the issue tapped into class-based politics and promised autonomy to an austerity-battered segment of society. Before the party backed a second referendum, Corbyn’s 2017 coalition recruited working-class Brexit voters as well as remainers, minorities, and disenchanted graduates by being frank about the economic problems that united them.
These economic resentments are still out there. The Tories might be promising to “level up” the North and Midlands, but pandemic relief has continually prioritized London. Young people are still forced into insecure labor at minimum wage, and the use of food banks has been essentially normalized across the UK. In response to this — in language worryingly reminiscent of Mandelson’s public support for the “filthy rich” — Starmer has opposed Tory proposals to pay for COVID costs by taxing big business. Labour needs a leader who will address economic resentments plainly and unapologetically, rather than rely on marketing strategies around pints and flags.
Starmer seems to want to be remembered for a rewriting of Labour Party history as a movement devoid of any socialist identity, formed in the early 1990s to replicate the Democrat winning machine. The National Health Service was not built on the recommendations of a focus group, nor was the welfare state. Focus-grouped voters can be made to seem eternally fickle, and treating voters as consumers rather than political beings with shared values obfuscates the bold, coherent vision of the future that Labour needs right now.