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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.