In the words of that noted political philosopher and Sex Pistol John Lydon, “anger is an energy”. It is also addictive. When a political party succumbs to it, self-righteousness, paranoid tendencies and divisive wedge strategies soon follow. It feeds on itself so that there is soon no other way to mobilise supporters and deliver victories.
The US election does not, alas, herald an end to the politics of anger. But it was at least a setback. Lessons from one country are not easy to graft on to another, especially in the middle of a pandemic. For all his flaws, Boris Johnson is not Donald Trump. But the British prime minister has presided over a politics convulsed by similar rage, so Joe Biden’s victory offers some pointers to the UK’s opposition Labour party on how to quell populist conservatism.
Those clues are mainly about anger management. It’s easy to see the surge of support for an uninspiring candidate as proof of the power of the fury with Mr Trump. But Mr Biden grasped that while anger energises, it also repels. He harnessed the anger without succumbing to it. His tone was always measured.
In the UK anger works better for the Conservative party. The Tories used public resentment against condescending cultural elites to build a new coalition of working class and wealthy voters last year. But, while anger strengthens the right coalition, it generally weakens the left. This is because the UK, like the US, is innately a “small-C” conservative country. Even its radicalism is conservative (a striking facet of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership was his attachment to ideas forged in the 1970s and 1980s).
Some on the British (and US) left argue the narrow Biden win proves the failure of centrism. But they were rather more forgiving of Mr Corbyn’s defeat. Voters preparing to elect a left-leaning government seek reassurance about the limits of its radicalism that they do not seek in the same degree from the Tories.
Anger also blinds people to their own errors. Remainers, raging at Mr Trump’s refusal to concede his electoral loss, should recall the movement for a second Brexit referendum. The People’s Vote campaign was rightly seen as an attempt to overturn a democratic vote. It was an example of self-destructive anger which fuelled the righteous indignation of Leave voters who were then mopped up by the Tories. Losers’ consent must be non-negotiable.
This is not to deny reasons for anger. But it requires control at all times. Anger drives the depiction of those who voted differently as racists, “deplorables”, or traitors. It mobilises the base but repels voters you need to reclaim. Mr Biden did not shy away from progressive positions on equality, but he did not let them define him and he shunned angry stances that would have armed his rival. He won the voters he needed from the centre. The message to swing voters was of unity and reassurance.
On Tuesday, Lisa Nandy, the UK shadow foreign secretary, impressed shadow cabinet colleagues with her analysis of Mr Biden’s success. While warning them not to overstate the parallels, she highlighted turnout strategies and messages. And, while she was clear on the solidity of Mr Trump’s vote, she noted the “narrow pathway” Mr Biden had found to reclaim lost voters in industrial towns.
If there is a parallel between the US and UK, it is here. Just as flipping rustbelt states was the key to Mr Biden’s win, so the next British election will again be won in the small, former manufacturing towns of England. Labour must regain these working class, socially conservative towns where the government now gets first hearing. This means closing down the culture wars Tories wish to fight, so that voters are prepared to listen to Labour’s message. The narrow pathway allows for what one frontbencher calls “progressive patriotism”, but the patriotism is not optional.
It is clear the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, understands that, like Mr Biden, he must avoid fighting the battles the Tories want to fight. From sidestepping rows over historic statues, to ordering his MPs to support the government on a recent national security measure covering covert intelligence, a central feature of his leadership has been not offering weapons to his enemies. The voters he needs may see the case for police reform; they do not support “defunding”.
The same is true with Brexit, not least because of Sir Keir’s history as an activist for a second referendum. As one of those close to him puts it “we can’t look like the Labour party doesn’t want Brexit to work”. Anger will lead to gloating and bitterness. When Labour speaks critically about Brexit, its message must be about mismanagement. But more important than all this is that Labour’s winning ticket is optimism not anger. Think of Tony Blair’s slogan, “things can only get better”. Labour wins when voters hear and believe a message of hope.
Mr Johnson too understands the power of optimism. Even when he harnessed anger in last year’s election, his good cheer obscured the snarls of his allies. The genius of his “Get Brexit Done” campaign was that it played both to Leaver fury and a wider weariness with division. And that he linked it to promises of investment in jobs and services.
Sir Keir’s challenge, then, is to turn the anger into hope, to retreat from the cultish bitterness of the Corbyn era and offer an inclusive, mainstream alternative. His appeal relies on reassurance and his pitch will be an end to what he will call Johnsonian chaos. In this, anger is his enemy.
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