Harvard to high office: Senator Elizabeth Warren, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Photo: Getty
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Encounters in a Harvard canteen, Elizabeth Warren’s options and the charm of John McCain

The shadow foreign secretary reports from a four-day trip to the States. 

The day before the long Easter weekend, the papers are filled with coverage of David Axelrod joining the Labour campaign. After the Easter break, I’m on a plane to the US, where I’ll be staying for four days.

My first destination is Harvard. In the hotel canteen for breakfast, I unexpectedly run into my shadow cabinet colleague Tristram Hunt. It turns out that he’s on campus for meetings on education policy. Next, I see Mark Penn – Hillary Clinton’s pollster in 2008 and Labour’s pollster in 2005. It’s that kind of place.

After breakfast, I meet Larry Summers – now back at Harvard as a professor after his work with Clinton’s and then Obama’s economic teams. He offers trenchant views on the impact of austerity on the British economy and outlines his concerns about the risks of “secular stagnation” in key industrial economies. He tells me that George Osborne was in town the previous week and we then discuss the work he’s doing with Ed Balls at the Centre for American Progress on sustainable growth in the global economy. In the early 1990s, there was significant dialogue between New Labour and the New Democrats about how to meet the common challenges of that time. Now, on both sides of the Atlantic, the challenges of securing sustainable growth and tackling rising inequality are dominating policy conversations – and shaping the outcome of political races.

 

Open Democratic choices

Conversations about the US economy aren’t just happening in the offices of Harvard professors; they are happening at kitchen tables across the country. Indeed, the public anger over the fraud, crash and bailouts of the American banks has already carried another Harvard professor, Elizabeth Warren, all the way from her lecture hall to the US Senate. As an academic specialising in bankruptcy, she was brought to Washington by President Obama to set up an agency to protect consumers from being ripped off by financial services companies. Her work there on behalf of working families in turn helped her defeat the popular Republican senator Scott Brown.

I last saw her speak at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012. That night she brought the crowd to its feet with a fiery speech declaring that, for ordinary American families, the game is rigged – rigged to work for those who have money and power. Now she has a new book out, A Fighting Chance. The one question this book, and her media appearances to promote it, leave unanswered is whether Warren is eyeing a run for the White House. As one friend put it to me, “She’s in the optionalising business.”

 

Different ball game

Personally, the only race I run the next day is against myself in the gym. There, early in the morning, I catch the live interview with David Axelrod on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, the broadcast is aired live from the legendary baseball stadium Wrigley Field in Chicago. In the middle of the diamond-shaped field, in pre-dawn freezing conditions, there is Labour’s latest recruit, holding forth on the coming midterm elections, resplendent in his beloved Chicago Cubs jacket.

The interview makes me more relaxed about the British weather he will encounter when he arrives in London in a couple of weeks, but rather more nervous about the appropriate dress code for his strategy meetings at Labour HQ.

 

Baby’s smooth routine

The following day, I join the audience as Senator John McCain addresses the students of the John F Kennedy School of Government. The former fighter pilot and presidential candidate gives a bravura performance, combining humility, passion and humour. He bats away their praise for his heroism with practised ease, explaining that as a pilot it doesn’t take a lot of skill to be shot down by an anti-aircraft missile. He goes on to confess that his greatest regret is listening to his political handlers and suggesting during a tough primary contest against George W Bush that the flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina State House was simply an exercise of states’ rights. He then charms the student audience with a well-practised line: “When I lost the presidency I slept like a baby – sleep for two hours. Wake up and cry. Sleep for two hours. Wake up and cry . . .”

 

Hard-travelling Hillary

The next day, I fly west to a gathering that brings together Hillary Clinton and a number of senators from both sides of the aisle. The formal focus of the discussions is the Middle East but, inevitably, there is also much discussion of Ukraine.

Concern about the strength of Europe’s diplomatic and economic response is obvious. Hillary discusses the crisis and reflects more broadly on her time as secretary of state, and speaks with the experience born of having visited no fewer than 112 countries during that period. Yet there is little doubt that her continuing celebrity status – even among her former colleagues in the Senate – reflects many people’s future hopes as much as her past achievements. The sense of expectation around a possible presidential run in 2016 is palpable.

For Hillary, however, her concerns are rather more immediate. Her publishers have just retuned their proposed manuscript edits to her long-awaited book Hard Choices – and her sign-off is now required against the publisher’s pressing deadlines. The book’s publication this summer, and the accompanying nationwide launch tour, will do little to dampen the growing expectation that now surrounds her. As I return to the UK, I sense that Bush v Clinton (but this time Jeb v Hillary) remains a real possibility for 2016.

Then again, if a week is a long time in British politics, two years is a lifetime in politics across the pond. 

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.