Despite the insistence of our political class, Britain and the US have little in common. One is a former settler colony, home to more than 300 million people, with an elected president, a federal system of 50 states, and a GDP in excess of $20tn. The other is a political union of three ancient nations and a portion of a partitioned neighbour, whose sovereign is a monarch and whose economic clout, when measured in purchasing power parity, is smaller than that of Indonesia.
Yet comparisons are inevitable: one was the ancestor nation of the other, and the two share a common linguistic heritage. Perhaps most importantly, since 1941 – with a few exceptions – the two countries have remained firm geopolitical partners, feeding the egoism of politicians whose default remains that memorable delusion of Harold Macmillan: that Britain is the Greece to America’s Roman empire.
While this was partially true in the shadow of WW2, when the former commanded a global empire, today it is not. Yet it’s this alignment around 1945 – with the apogee of Atlanticism, the arguable birth of the British nation, and a high point for Labour – which transfixes the party’s elite.
This explains why Labour politicians, and the centre left more generally, are prone to taking the lead of the US – the latest example of which is the idea Keir Starmer can derive lessons from a triumphant Joe Biden. Biden, we are told, has discovered the elixir to defeating rightwing populism – and Starmer must bottle it.
There are two problems with this conclusion. The first is that the fundamental differences between the US and UK are so great, and the contemporary challenges they face so different, that any shared lessons are minimal. The second is that whatever lessons there may be – and I believe there are several – these are being wilfully ignored. If Starmer does indeed want to imitate Biden, he has a funny way of showing it.
First, the differences. The US has a presidential system rather than a parliamentary one, meaning the electorate vote for the executive rather than for MPs. One can see how Starmer might fare better in the US than he does here, navigating – as he must – the competing values and priorities of his colleagues. In a presidential system, for instance, Jeremy Corbyn would have faced less pressure to change his position on Brexit because dissenting backbenchers would have been less of a problem. Britain’s party system, by contrast, amplifies and exposes infighting – see also the Tories on Europe. This will structurally disadvantage Labour over the coming decade as battles between those who accept the need for a new economic model, and those who don’t, continue. There are many, many more MPs in the latter camp.
Then there are Scotland and Wales, which have no analogues across the Atlantic. Labour holds just one seat out of 57 in Scotland, and while it held 41 as recently as 2010, few of those are coming back anytime soon. Scotland’s potential departure from the union, or even just further devolution, demands a recomposition of the left in England. This is something which Labour, on both sides of the border, remains incapable of admitting. In Wales, a recent poll showed the party losing one more seat than in 2019 – a supposed nadir.
This leaves England, the largest of the nations and where Labour has struggled most in recent decades – the exception being a brief resurgence in 2017. Even in 2005 under Tony Blair, the party only came second in the popular vote, and despite Labour winning a sizeable majority that year their share of the vote in England was only 1.5% higher than in 2019. All of this is before boundary changes, likely introduced before 2024, which could give the Tories a further fifteen seats. Simply staying above 200 seats may be an accomplishment for Labour in three years’ time.
There are, however, some lessons which translate across the Atlantic. Biden won last year because the election saw the highest turnout in more than a century. Without this, Trump would have likely remained in office – even while losing the popular vote. Biden won the city of Detroit with 94% of the vote, while Trump received only 5%. In Pennsylvania, where Black voters made up 8% of the electorate, 93% voted for Biden. In Georgia, the organising efforts of Stacey Abrams and others achieved even more unlikely results – not only winning the state, but flipping both its Senate seats. There, as in the all-important rust belt, voter registration of African Americans rocketed after the murder of George Floyd.
This is a long way from Starmer’s conclusion that Biden won the election by emphasising “family, community and security” and by avoiding arguments about “culture war” issues such as trans rights and the destruction of historic statues. Biden and Kamala Harris are public trans allies, while the new president has backed the removal of confederate statues from public spaces. One suspects both would give short shrift to the behaviour of certain Labour MPs – particularly on the issue of trans rights.
Biden also offers lessons on policy, with the new president having acted more bravely in the face of Covid-19 than any leader in the UK. Not only has he outlined a $1.9tn stimulus package proposal – nearly twice the size of Obama’s 2009 package – but he’s pledging to extend the eviction moratorium, freeze student debt interest, increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and with no mention of austerity. All this while Labour talks in the language of ‘balancing the books’. Starmer says he believes in compromise, but the problem is that nobody knows where he’s starting from.
Last is how Biden has approached cultivating a relationship with the left. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s removal from Starmer’s shadow cabinet and Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension as a Labour MP created a rift between the party’s right (exemplified by its bureaucracy and MPs) and its left (the majority of the party’s affiliated unions and its membership). This stands in stark contrast to Biden’s openness to coalition-building – having even considered Bernie Sanders for labor secretary.
This isn’t to say everything is fine and well within the Democratic party – clearly, it isn’t. But it’s simply untrue to say Keir Starmer is adopting the measures that powered Joe Biden to the Oval Office. This would mean enhancing Labour’s community organising efforts, inspiring its membership, being genuinely conciliatory and offering solutions to social problems we face. Right now, none of that is on offer.