When senior figures in Britain’s Labour party feel despondent at the scale of the electoral task ahead of them after their heavy defeat in 2019, they look to Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election for inspiration.
Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, addressed the shadow cabinet last week on lessons that the UK’s main opposition party can take from the Democrats.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has also urged his party to study Mr Biden’s broad approach, saying after the US election result: “The Democrats’ path to victory this week was paved by a broad coalition, including many of the states and communities that four years ago turned away from them.”
Sir Keir thinks he can apply the Democratic strategy of winning back US states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, home to socially conservative, working class voters, in areas like the Midlands and northern England, which went Tory in 2019.
That means copying Mr Biden’s emphasis on “family, community and security”, Sir Keir said, and avoiding endless arguments about “culture war” issues such as trans rights and the destruction of historic statues.
Ms Nandy’s speech to the shadow cabinet probed the Trump-inspired January 6 riot at the US Capitol and whether it could happen in the UK.
She said there were parallels in the UK with how rightwingers in the US had “preyed on a lot of very deeply held grievances and resentments” in blue collar communities, for example immigration and long-term economic decline.
“Britain is not America in any sense, British people are far less susceptible to conspiracy theories and there is a much lower ceiling on the amount of disruption that people will tolerate over here,” she told the Financial Times.
“Nevertheless, there are the same trends in terms of people feeling low levels of trust in politics, politicians, the media, the judiciary.”
Labour expects the ruling Conservative government to try to ramp up some of the divisions between urban metropolitan voters, many of whom voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum and Labour in the 2019 general election, and those elsewhere — who often voted Leave and Tory.
“What Biden’s trying to do in the US is what we’re trying to do here, which is to bring people back together after a very very long period in which people have been broken apart by all sorts of events, but particularly by their political leaders,” Ms Nandy said.
She argued that Mr Biden and his vice president-elect Kamala Harris were right not to compromise in saying what they stood for — for example Black Lives Matter, trans rights and abortion — but prioritising their core messages of family security and economic security, even during a pandemic.
The incoming Biden team has been cautious about engaging with overseas politicians after the controversies around Donald Trump’s dealings with Russia. And the Labour leadership is keen to play down the extent of any “special relationship” between the party and the Democrats: it knows that the Biden administration’s initial focus will be on working with Britain’s Conservative-run government.
Sir Keir has not met Mr Biden but has been briefed by John Anzalone, a pollster for the incoming president, on how the Democrats won back white, male, working-class voters.
Meanwhile Ed Miliband, shadow business secretary and a keen follower of US politics, talks regularly with former US secretary of state John Kerry. David Lammy, shadow justice secretary, is friends with Democrats such as Ben Rhodes, a national security official under former president Barack Obama, and Patrick Leahy, father of the Senate, as well as members of the “black caucus” in the US Congress, such as Jim Clyburn.
Mr Lammy said Labour had learnt from Mr Biden’s Democrats not to “fall into traps on the culture wars” and stick to the economy.
“It’s only when people feel secure (on the economy and security) that you have the licence to say some of the things you might want to say on Black Lives Matter or whatever. And those basic things I think the Democrats understand incredibly well.”
He also applauded Sir Keir’s touch, popular in the US, of making announcements in front of the national flag.
While Labour MPs do not want to exaggerate their own influence in Team Biden they contrast their fraternal relations with the Democrats with the US party’s doubts about prime minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Lammy said Mr Johnson had said “silly things” in the past about Mr Obama, the last Democrat president, which have not been forgotten. He said his allies in Washington regarded Mr Johnson as a “shape-shifter” who cannot entirely be trusted.
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