Biden’s bold legislative moves DO have lessons for the UK centre-left, but not the ones Guardian pundits think.
We’ve heard quite a lot of condescending “aha, look, Biden is doing things, therefore the left must shut up and stop complaining because I am very smart takes” from the usual suspects (primarily Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian in a recent piece), and the thrust of the argument is essentially that Biden won power as a moderate, and is governing as a “radical”, proving the philosophy of the radical left wrong, and vindicating milquetoast moderation in politics. I happen to think that there ARE some big notable lessons for the UK centre-left to learn from the Biden Presidency so far, but they aren’t the ones liberal pundits would have you believe.
I said recently going forward from the American Rescue Plan, Biden would either step back into stagnation and neoliberal austerity, or look big, and that that choice would define the Democratic party’s prospects for a decade. All signs now point towards the latter being the case, and this is to be welcomed (although the details of course are pending and this could all be warm words that get whittled down).
We’re hearing talk of a $4trn infrastructure package, followed by moves on health and education and public services. This is exactly the sort of thing a progressive administration would need to be looking at; wholesale transformational policies to rebuild basic public infrastructure, do it green, and revitalise the American economy in the process; something Biden seems keen to do, and something neither Obama nor Trump lived up to their rhetoric on when it came down to it.
Some bizarre takes from blue check liberals have been put around, asserting ( with a straight face) that $4tn on infrastructure and greening of the economy is a waste of time, because it is somehow sexist and racist, only for white men, and instead we should spend all our time on identity politics and diversity programmes. This take astounds me, because the people who’ll be lifted up most by a revitalised public realm in the United States, and who’ll receive the greatest benefit from connectivity and infrastructure, are Americans of all colours, sure, but the most benefit being felt within poor and minority communities. This is progressive policy, anyone claiming otherwise is clueless.
How can a self styled “progressive” oppose infrastructure? Diversity and inclusion are important, but if you spend all your time with a historical chance to pass legislation on identity politics, and don’t transform the economy in the interests of working people (who are more likely to be minorities), then who the fuck are you for, and who the fuck are you helping? An infrastructure package can and would be a help in racial and economic inclusion and justice, period.
So, Biden may be about to make the smartest decision of his political career, leave behind the stagnant neoliberal dogma he’s served his long, regressive career, and invest big for an economic recovery. What does the potential success of the Biden project actually tell the centre-left around the world, and particularly in the UK?
First and foremost, it tells us that moderates are out of ideas. There was a time when these people would launch a passionate defence of, and lay out a case for, neoliberal economic policy. Now, they wear the economic clothes of the left when running, and borrow our souring rhetoric about inequality and investment. New Labour wouldn’t have done this, Bill Clinton wouldn’t have done this; but the centre-left is dead, and it can’t win (or even connect with real people) without aping us. The crash and burns of Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, Change UK, Jo Swinson, and Keir Starmer, all show as much.
The biggest lesson though, is to bring in the left, keep them on side. Joe Biden didn’t dismiss Bernie Sanders and AOC as decrepit racists, he didn’t attempt to purge progressives from his party, and he actually worked with these people to keep them on side, before and after his election. This doesn’t mean Biden’s now a progressive, he clearly isn’t anywhere near the political left, but he’s smart enough to know these people have to be on side. If he’d attacked Sanders throughout the campaign, or isolated these people in his party, no way would he have won in the key swing states. The left’s mobilising and energy in many ways carried Biden’s political corpse over the finish line.
Keir Starmer not only won’t work with or include the left, he’s spearheading the demonization and expulsion of the political left from his party. These people have the ideas, and the energy, and Starmer hasn’t acknowledged the fact they aren’t cranks on Twitter, they’re real people who won’t vote Labour and could tip the scales during an election by not turning out, not campaigning, or voting for a third party and splitting the vote. Biden, however he views progressives, acknowledged he needed them to vote for him, Starmer has been flipping off progressives since Day 1, including making a public show of humiliating the previous leader.
The lesson the centre-left must learn (especially considering even doddering conservative Biden has) is that you need to build out a broad base if you want to win, bringing into the fold social liberals and progressives, and you need to unashamedly champion progressive social values, and incorporate progressive economic rhetoric. Biden did this in the UNITED STATES and won, Starmer has to do this, Blue Labour + neoliberalism is the sort of game that’ll win you 25% come election time, and that’s if you’re bloody lucky.
And once you take power, there is no centrism, the centre can’t hold and the era of crises within which we live requires nothing short of radical solutions. This means transformative economic policy and a willingness to shatter orthodoxy and thing outside the box, not reside within one that was built in 1997. So yes, there are some lessons from Biden to Starmer and the European centre-left: work with, not against the left, use their mobilisation and energy on the campaign trail, and up your ambition when in office, or go extinct.