Like the lawyer he is, Keir Starmer seems to be calmly and methodically building a conclusive case for Labour’s return to power after a 13-year absence.
True, he’s gotten a big assist from Boris Johnson’s downfall and the ensuing succession chaos among the Tories. But Starmer has deftly steered Labour away from the reefs of doctrinaire socialism — which contributed greatly to its shattering 2019 defeat — and back toward its “home port” among working-class voters.
Why should an American observer from a center-left think tank in Washington take such a keen interest in Labour’s ups and downs?
Because, even allowing for deep differences in political structure and culture, there are often striking parallels between the challenges facing Labour and U.S. Democrats, and how they try to overcome them.
We can, and sometimes do, compare notes and learn from each other’s wins and losses. Democrats and Labour, for example, kicked off the center-left dialogues of the late ’90s and aughts. These grew into a rich and mutually supportive cross-fertilization of ideas and political strategies among leaders around the world.
Now we seem to be arriving at another moment of center-left ferment, with progressive parties in power or governing coalitions in the United States, Germany, Australia, Spain, and Portugal, and with Labour showing a healthy lead in the polls over the Tories.
These developments are heartening, because liberal democracies need a reinvigorated center-left to turn back the tide of reactionary nationalism that has swept much of the world over the past decade. To encourage them, PPI has launched a new Project on Center-Left Renewal, headed by former Starmer advisor Claire Ainsley.
To enlarge their social and political base and build bigger majorities, center-left parties must draw up a new blueprint for radically pragmatic reform.
In his speech to the Progressive Britain conference sponsored by the PPI, Sir Keir made clear that Labour is determined to win back working class voters who drifted away over immigration, Brexit and Labour’s leftward lurch.
Intriguingly, Starmer said that major Labour reforms in economic policy and public services should go hand-in-hand with empathy and respect for traditional working-class values:
“We can seize the opportunities of tomorrow and make them work for working people. But this ambition must never become unmoored from working peoples’ need for stability, or order, for security.”
Speaking at the same conference, I offered three cautions based on the U.S. experience since Biden ousted Donald Trump from the White House in 2020.
First, while policy ambition is essential to inspire voters, it must be focused, disciplined and anchored in broad values rather than sectarian ideologies. Center-left leaders should refrain from overreaching in their campaign promises, and over reading their mandate when they win.
Trying to do everything at once delights core party constituencies who see a chance for action on their pent-up demands. But the spectre of tax hikes and big spending rattles persuadable voters.
In 2021, for example, President Biden pursued a more ambitious spending agenda than he had campaigned on. Despite a narrow political margin, he managed to push through Congress big investments in infrastructure, clean energy and tech innovation.
But as the economy roared back from the pandemic recession, a perfect storm of soaring consumer demand, production and supply chain bottlenecks, energy shortages and fiscal stimulus combined to spark the unwelcome return of inflation. While it’s slowly moderating, the high cost of living remains a top worry of U.S. voters, making it hard for them to feel the benefits of Biden’s initiatives.
Second, center-left leaders should speak to their country as a whole, not just their most fervent partisans.
As the pivotal 2020 campaign opened, many Democrats had succumbed to the myth of progressive ascendancy. This was the idea that demographic trends, specifically the growth of young and non-white voters, would inevitably deliver a progressive majority.
This misconception led many party strategists to focus exclusively on mobilizing “base” voters rather than targeting swing voters — moderates, independents and Republicans alienated by Trump.
Thankfully, Biden didn’t fall into that trap. Nonetheless, U.S. politics remains stalemated between two minority parties that are essentially tied, with control of government ping ponging back and forth between them.
The only way out is for Democrats to engineer a true political realignment. That will require a concerted effort to win more independents and moderates in suburbs that are now the main U.S. political battleground.
Third, and most important, center-left parties need to renew their allegiance to the working class.
Democrats can’t keep losing non-college white voters by crushing margins. They also need to stop the haemorrhaging of non-white working class voters, who are more moderate in outlook than college-educated Democrats.
This will require a sustained effort to grapple with the social as well as economic discontents that have driven working class voters into the arms of right-wing populists.
In America, that means two things: Embracing cultural moderation grounded in broadly shared values and common sense; and adopting a post-populist agenda that speaks to working peoples’ aspirations for growth and upward mobility, rather than lecturing them on the iniquities of capitalism.
Something like that also seems to be on offer from Labour, as Starmer prepares to take his case to the jury in the next UK election.
Will Marshall is the President and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C. with offices in the United Kingdom and Brussels. Watch him speak at Progressive Britain Conference 2023.