Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The ripples from the US election and its aftermath could profoundly affect Labour's journey from here

It should be uncontroversial at this point, for any (small-"d") democrat, to say that the election of Joe Biden is immensely good news for the world in general. 

Following the final debacle of Trump's disastrous presidency, the Capitol insurrection, the alternative in retrospect seems ever more unthinkable, because it is now clear that his open contempt for democracy could easily have led the US to a much, much darker place than happened on the 6th of January.

We are now at least in the happy position of going back to something resembling politics-as-usual. We can finally start to critique the new presidency as we would have done any other and, for us on the left, things mostly look very promising. But there are also some flaws, as we shall see.

But, at the risk of seeming a little parochial, what's in it for us? What difference does it make to us, the Labour party, in its struggle to clean itself up and get back into power?

The good news is that, obviously, we will have an occupant of the White House who might be reasonably expected to prefer a Starmer-led government to a Johnson-led one (as indeed he would prefer an anyone-led government, if insider accounts of Biden's dislike for our current PM is to be believed. One thing is clear: there will be a serviceable working relationship between the two leaders - there always is - but it will not be a chummy, personal one, like Clinton-Blair or Bush-Blair).

There are two caveats to this positive: first, Starmer needs not to do anything ill-advised. For example, this effect didn't work so well with Ed Miliband, who was reportedly persona non grata in the Obama White House for some time, following his disastrous handling of the Syria vote in the Commons. Second, that this kind of "left-left" alignment is not usually much direct help anyway, although some occasional supportive noises from the president might help a little to build Starmer's desired image as a PM-in-waiting.

And now to the bad news.

First, there will be things Starmer will want just as much as Johnson, which Biden may not help with, or even actively work against. On a post-Brexit trade deal, for example, all the signs are that Biden may well opt for Obama's celebrated "back of the queue" position. Or that from this, the first president with Irish roots to win office in twenty-eight years, help in resisting what is likely to be increasing pressure towards Irish reunification seems unlikely to be forthcoming. These issues need to be handled with care.

Second, and perhaps more concerning, there are concrete things Biden has already done, and others he might do very soon, which can create a negative knock-on for Starmer. Why so?

US commentator Andrew Sullivan's perceptive piece on the immediate aftermath of the inauguration is instructive: it makes the point that, for all his talk of unity, Biden is not exactly going out of his way to avoid culture wars, either. The Democrats' progressive wing has been exacting its demands on Biden - whose deputy, let us not forget, belongs to said wing - since the day the election was called for him.

And the Progressives are big - very big - on identity politics, arguably one of their more successful exports to the European left, despite the fact that, for example, the history of race relactions in the UK is markedly different from the US. And that leads us to a couple of areas in which their policies get a little, well radical.

Among others, VP Kamala Harris has very much bought into the modern concept of "equity over equality" - this may sound high-faluting but, as Sully points out, it's merely what previous generations called "equality of outcome over equality of opportunity". That is, tinkering with labour market operation or public services access for different "identities", in a way which is intended to promote fairness but which ultimately often results in perverse incentives in practice..

This is a major change in thinking. It's useful to note that, for that very reason, the accepted position for years in both the US and UK has been that equality of opportunity is the only desirable way forward. For example, Britain has not had a government which seriously subscribed to equality of outcome since Jim Callaghan left office in 1979 and ushered in eighteen years of Tory government.

Now, perhaps this is all just talk on the part of Harris and co., but what if it's not? To reopen those debates long held to be closed on the sensible British left, because they can see American thought leaders promoting those ideas, is not helpful, to say the least, at a time when Labour is trying hard to get back to common sense. It is no secret that the Corbynite commentariat are keen to reach out to the Progressives as like-minded souls - and perhaps they are, to an extent.

That's just one example which will likely surface slowly, over the course of the coming presidential term. And note that we can mostly assume that the "identities" involved will refer to a characteristic with relatively clear and firm boundaries, like race, sex or geography. The trouble is, when you start making special cases for a long list of minorities, you end up with an unworkable patchwork of exceptions, and those who are not a special case feeling resentful.

Now imagine a case which is still more problematic: where the boundaries are blurry. The most immediate example, which many have pointed out in the last few days, is that the initial batch of Executive Orders contained a provision which effectively enshrines self-id for anyone identifying as transgender in federal law. 

In short, this means that any man who "feels" they are a woman has a right, without being required to pass any evidencial test, to women-only spaces in federal buildings, women's sport, women's federal prisons and so on. As numbers of people identifying as transgender skyrocket, it is not difficult to see how this idea is likely to cause enormous problems in practice.

So this is clearly a big deal. In itself, this change provides a precedent in US law, which is likely to be used as an argument for self-id over here (in my view, inappropriately, given the big differences in existing protections for women and the fact that further change is opposed by activists across the political spectrum, by no means just the right) by the Trans Rights Activist (TRA) lobby. And this is an area where Starmer already has a serious fight on his hands, between those same TRAs on the one hand, and feminists concerned at the erosion of women's rights on the other.

For the moment, Starmer has kept his head down and largely avoided that fight; but it is coming, and this move by the Biden administration will surely accelerate it.

It seems fair to argue that, given the awfulness of the alternative, many centrist electors will have voted for Biden without taking much time to mull over the detail of his policy programme. If you believe in sensible government and democracy first, the rest would understandably seem irrelevant on polling day. But that also implies that, perhaps, ex-post scrutiny of that programme now needs to be a lot stronger. And we need, as Biden himself ought, to avoid the culture wars.

In short: it's great that Biden's in power and we cannot diminish the greatness of his achievement. But now he is there, we are allowed to restart the process of critical thought. 

As we do, it is right to be aware of how the message of his progressive wing, if heeded by those Labour activists who see them as the "cool left", could well end up prolonging Labour's return to the electable centre, not shortening it.

That is, we should engage with the arguments of the Biden Democrats, but we do not need to swallow them whole.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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