Why Biden’s success should worry Starmer

By Alex Sicilia

During the winter of 2019, when a blue frost swept across Britain in an election which saw the Conservatives achieve a landslide victory against Labour, Jeremy Corbyn announced his intentions to resign as leader of the Labour party. The conventional wisdom, after three general election misses, was that Labour would elect a more moderate, centrist leader to fight their battles. Keir Starmer became the new leader on April 4th.

Starmer was perceived to be this electable candidate, who would oversee a new less divided Labour. He could win battles against Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and convince not just former Labour voters to return to the party, but also moderate Conservatives disgruntled by the increasingly right-wing populism practised under Johnson.

Like a gameplan drawn on a whiteboard before the players head out to the match, it was excellent in theory.  As with all plans, however, there is another team trying to mess it up. This time though, it seemed it was the coach himself working against them. Each day Starmer appears to face an ever-increasing pile of internal conflicts brought on by his own hand.

Starmer is seemingly guided by the light of another moderate who attempted similar tactics. Enter Joe Biden, the US moderate who, at the time of Starmer’s election, was on course to become the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party through a moderate platform. Like Starmer, he had defeated the left of his party, was running against a right-wing populist opponent, and faced internal conflicts which rippled through his party like a rock dropped in water.

The two moderate campaigns had much in common. Biden would be vague on policies which could hurt his chances in the general election campaign. Starmer’s Labour would oversee a party where many wondered what it stood for, as policies were either absent or forgotten shortly after their debut. Biden would remain housebound in Delaware for much of his campaign, staying out of the press’s gaze as his opponent stumbled from pillar to post during a developing pandemic. Starmer would choose a ‘work together’ strategy of cooperative opposition in the hope that the limelight would be stolen by Johnson who bumbled from dispatch box to press conference. Lastly, Biden would spend much of his time comparing his character to Donald Trump’s, emphasising his empathy and compassion. Starmer would do much the same as he crafted his character-driven campaign, attempting to prevent others from doing it for him. Though the pair would run similar campaigns, it was over party unity that they differed. It is a stark difference that could damage Starmer’s prospects of a Downing Street welcome party.

November arrived and Biden succeeded to the Presidency: the moderates of the UK must have cheered more than the Democrats. Moderate politics lives! It can defeat right-wingers – Biden proved it. Yet digging into the details reveals that Starmer should not be cheerful about the power of middle-ground bargaining. Rather, he should be worried at the difficulty it faced in crossing the finish line.

The Bargained Majority

The UK parliamentary system is more akin to the US House of Representatives, a chamber of 435 voting members across the 50 states. The Democrats had 235 seats after the 2018 midterms but dropped to 222 in the 2020 election, Biden only winning in 215 of these districts, leaving a 4-seat majority for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What is left is a ruling party run by internal factions that can pick apart each bill with a fine-toothed comb and demand top dollar in exchange for their support. In the Senate we see the most extreme example of majority bargaining with an evenly split chamber. A bill can be killed with a single vote by either moderate Sen. Joe Manchin or progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, both individuals who caucus with the Democrats.

Starmer can look to Biden’s success and draw hope from it. But actually, if Starmer did as well as the Democrats then he would have a majority of roughly six seats. The Socialist Campaign Group, who champion Labour’s left in Parliament, have numbers that would dwarf such a majority. There could be a beautiful irony of Starmer being ruled by the socialists he sought to expel.

Starmer could, however, continue his courting of moderate Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and others, and convince them to vote alongside him on a bipartisan basis. But there is no telling what he would have to concede or how cooperative these others would be. A politician of exemplary skill would be needed to navigate such a minefield. Not every bill would be so easily sold to Conservative or Socialist MPs.

Margins Matter

The prospect of Starmer having a chance of a majority government, through a Biden-style campaign, might give rise to cheerful cries by moderates who want to see the former public prosecutor as Prime Minster. But let us now throw water on the fire. Biden did much to convince progressives to put their faith in him. Biden was endorsed by Sanders, set up a unity task force, and had the Vermont Senator and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak at his nomination convention. The progressive issues of the generation, Climate Change and Health Care, would see Biden concede a great deal to convince the disheartened left to vote for him. He asked for their faith through actions, instead of hoping the threat of four more years of Trump would bring them into the fold.

Democrats still stayed awake at night thinking about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Many looked intently into the conclusions as to why Clinton did not make it to 270 Electoral College votes with magnifying glasses, to ensure 2020 saw bluer pastures. Wisconsin was the tipping point state in both cycles. The margins were thin, just under 23,000 in 2016 and roughly 20,000 in 2020. When you consider Biden’s national victory margin it was 42,912 ballots which is smaller than Trump’s margin of 77,736 four years earlier. Margins matter, and they can be defined by a united or divided party. Labour cannot get into the mindset that progressive voters will vote for us anyway because the reality of 2016 is if voters find no home then they simply will not vote.

Starmer has done much to discourage the left from voting for the party of trade unions – from the Leaked Labour Report, to sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey, and suspending Jeremy Corbyn. Local election results underline the fact that Labour is not doing well enough, as indicated by the loss at the local elections of 2021, the Hartlepool by-election, and the razor-thin margin of the Batley and Spen by-election.

America is not alone in having close election results. The UK is awash with marginal seats, both rural and urban. Marginal seats can make the difference between a majority and minority government. The prospect of Starmer being as successful as the Democrats in 2020 could happen only if Labour moved towards 2024 with similar unity. If Starmer continues to divide Labour, then it is likely his character-driven campaign will not see the success achieved by Biden.

Worrying Success

Starmer cannot simply imitate Biden and achieve the same success of the now-President. From Biden we see the limits of the campaign Starmer is shadowing. Put simply, it will not win a majority. It took a unified party, a coalition spanning from the progressive left to the liberal moderates, for the Democrats to maintain their control of the House.

Starmer does not lead a united Labour Party. The left sees aggression, hostility, and deception. If Starmer continues to propagate this factional approach, then progressive voters could abstain from Labour, even switching to other parties, and deny it the chance of governing. Starmer needs to look more closely at the difficulties his moderates across the pond faced and how they strove to unite their party instead of expelling those they oppose.

For 2024 Labour should not look to the White House for inspiration: it should look to the House of Representatives. Starmer should be worried, not inspired, by Biden’s victory.

Alex Sicilia is a PhD student studying Theoretical Astrophysics who has been following US electoral politics closely since 2014.

Image: Joe Biden. Source: Joe Biden. Author: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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