What does the leader of Britain’s Labour Party have to teach American politicians in the wake of an election? Quite a lot, as it turns out — and no, I don’t mean former Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Indeed, Joe Biden learned far too much from him 33 years ago.
The Labour Party’s recent attempts to rehabilitate its image after four consecutive defeats — and an election wipeout last December under leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn — provide a compelling example for both of America’s main political parties. That is, if the leaders of those parties take heed.
Losses Lead to Lessons — and Listening
Six weeks ago, addressing the first party conference as Labour leader — and the first conference since the party’s devastating defeat in last December’s election — Keir Starmer pledged both to listen, and to deliver a new approach:
Let’s be blunt. Let’s be brutally honest with ourselves. When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to. … You don’t look at the electorate and ask them: ‘What were you thinking?’ You look at yourself and ask: ‘What were we doing?’
Starmer’s conference speech intended to draw a clear line under Corbyn’s leadership, where the party’s far-left positions accelerated the migration of working-class voters to Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. After losing four straight general elections to the Conservatives, he told the Labour Party that “it’s time to get serious about winning. That means we have to change, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Democrats: Mandate or Mirage?
Compare Starmer’s humility to the positions taken by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Joe Biden. In a speech on Friday, made before major news organizations called the presidential election in his favor, Biden claimed a “mandate for action.” Pelosi likewise claimed that Biden “has a strong mandate to lead, and he’ll have a strong Democratic House with him.”
Yet Biden’s comments come amidst the reality that if 20,000 or so votes swing the other way in a couple of key states, Donald Trump and not Biden would stand on the inaugural platform January 20 to take the presidential oath a second time.
As for Pelosi, her House Democrats lost at least half a dozen seats, and could after all the votes get counted (and recounted) lose double that amount. The losses came despite an enormous cash advantage for Democrats across the board, and predictions that Democrats would pick up seats rather than lose them. On both the congressional and presidential levels, those results can only classify as a mandate to someone with a magnifying glass or a microscope.
Republicans Shouldn’t Gloat
That said, Republicans also have reasons for humility, albeit different ones. Despite the closeness of the Electoral College counts, Biden won the popular vote by at least 5.2 million votes, a margin that will likely increase in the coming days.
Unlike Hillary Clinton in 2016, who could manage only a plurality of the vote, Biden won a majority of the nation’s votes for president. A Republican candidate has managed to win a majority of America’s votes only once in the past eight election cycles (George W. Bush in 2004).
Republicans also lost seats in the Senate, albeit fewer than expected, and saw Democrats retain control of the House. But the fact that Republicans have managed to win the most votes, let alone a majority of the votes, only once in the 32 years that Biden has been running for president should give any Republican a massive pause.
Leaders Should Listen
On the morning after the election, Politico ran an aptly titled column: “Democrats Look at Trump Voters and Wonder, ‘What the Hell Is Your Problem?’” That blunt question summarizes much of official Washington’s thinking about working-class individuals, or people in “flyover country.” Those sentiments bleed out in public, whether in Hillary Clinton’s discussion of “deplorables” (to laughter by the audience listening to her remarks) or Barack Obama’s comments about people “clinging to their guns and religion.”
Keir Starmer might tell Democrats that the fact they have to ask that type of question shows they deserved the results they received on Tuesday. Conversely, Republicans cannot expect to win the presidency with only 46-48 percent of the vote, and must expand their outreach to people of every race, class, and creed.
After Britain’s disastrous showing in the Boer War, Kipling wrote a poem describing the debacle, which starts thusly:
Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should
We have had no end of a lesson; it will do us no end of good.
Both parties should heed Starmer and Kipling’s words. As the country remains closely divided, the winner of the next election will likely come from the party that best heeds the lessons of election 2020.