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Would Bernie Sanders have done better against Donald Trump?

The limitations of the Third Way have been further exposed. The strengths of the alternative are less clear. 

For some time – not just in the United Kingdom and the United States, but in Europe too – advocates of what you might call the Third Way, or Blairism, or redistributive neoliberalism or centrism have argued that, while they have an activist problem, they do not have an electorate problem. Hillary Clinton was defeated by Barack Obama, but she would have beaten John McCain just as he did, possibly by a bigger margin. David Miliband was unable to make his way through Labour’s electoral college, but he would have prevailed over David Cameron where his brother failed. Manuel Valls, France’s interior minister, might be dead on arrival with activists in the French Socialist Party, but if he could only make it to the contest proper, he would surely defeat Marine Le Pen, Alain Juppe, and the rest.

And so on. Then Hillary Clinton did make it past the activists – and it turned out that the Third Way did have an electorate problem after all. Now some supporters of the candidate she defeated to get there, Bernie Sanders, are arguing that while he may have an activist problem, he would not have an electorate problem and would have beaten Donald Trump. Are they right?

Well, one of Clinton’s problems was that African-American turnout fell, though it is hard to disentangle the extent of that from voter suppression efforts and the unpicking of the Voting Rights Act after 2013. It’s worth noting, too, that Clinton’s dire approval ratings didn’t extend to African-Americans.

Sanders’ big problem in securing the nomination was that he struggled among African-American voters, particularly those over 30. (He did better among younger African-Americans.)  It seems…bold…to put it mildly to suggest he would have been able to do a better job of turning them out than the woman who defeated him among them. A lot of the commentary around this, I think, comes because most white liberal commentators know people who struggled to vote for Clinton and instead went for a leftwing third-party or wrote in Sanders – but don’t have older black relatives who would have struggled to vote for a candidate who had called on Obama to face a primary challenge in 2012.  

Just as Clinton struggled with the young in the primaries and to turn them out in the general, it seems highly unlikely that Sanders would not have struggle with minority turnout. Not least as part of Clinton’s problem was that turnout among those groups was not high enough to compensate for the fact that, thanks to the Trump message, white voters are beginning to vote on “ethno-political” lines, favouring the Republicans, switching a problem with the young for a problem with African-Americans would have ended up with the Democrats in the same place, by a different margin.

Before the result, I worried that Clinton – who due in part to her lack of popularity and the demands of winning the Democratic nomination had cause to tie herself to Barack Obama – was talking too explicitly about race to secure the necessary votes of white Americans. I dismissed that as nerves but as it is now clear that one of the significant shifts in this election was that the white vote behaved in a more ethno-political manner, my instinct is that this probably didn’t help.

And Sanders’ difficulty is that to win, he would have had to find some way to win over more African-American voters in the primaries. He lost African-Americans by 50+ points in most contests, and if he’d halved that gap, he would have become the nominee. But in doing so, he’d have had to talk even more explicitly and frequently about racial justice, which would, I think, have helped Trump in the general election.  

(It’s also worth remembering that Clinton still has votes to come in – so the “six million lost votes from Obama” narrative is somewhat overplayed.)

Don’t forget, either, that Colorado – which the Democrats won narrowly in the Senate and Clinton won in the Electoral College – a referendum on single-payer, one of Sanders’ key issues, was defeated in a landslide. In Wisconsin, where Clinton lost narrowly, Russ Feingold, an ally of Sanders, who Sanders fundraised for, was defeated by a larger margin than Clinton was.

Sanders would also have faced a well-funded, well-organised and favourably-covered third-party candidacy in the shape of Michael Bloomberg, further denting his chances. He would have exchanged the loss of voters to Jill Stein – though she would likely have still stood anyhow – for a loss of voters to his right flank, and Bloomberg would have received a lot more airtime than Stein or Gary Johnson, who finished third, did.

(This speaks to a particular worry for the left: that the political argument for the Third Way, that capital must be appeased or it will destroy the left, still applies, even though the political appeal of the Third Way has dissipated.) 

I am also highly sceptical of the idea that a campaign that nodded to almost every anti-black trope there was wouldn’t have relished going up against a Jewish candidate. (My suspicion is that is at least part of the explanation for the Clinton-Feingold gap)

To look over to Europe, the politics closest to Sanders – mainstream moderate social democracy – are doing an even worse job of holding the tide against the nativist right than Clinton, who at least won the popular vote, did.

There is a case that a significantly more leftwing policy platform – ala Corbyn, Podemos, Syriza – than Sanders might hold back the tide, or that, in the manner of the SNP, social democrats can win if they have a strong patriotic identity. Don’t forget that Scottish voters evince the same anti-immigrant sentiments as English voters, but they have not found a political expression at the ballot box in the same way. Spanish football crowds still make monkey noises at black footballers, but that, again, has not found expression at the voting booth. And in Greece, despite national humiliation and near-economic ruin, Golden Dawn is running at around seven per cent of the vote in the polls – a remarkable feat given the circumstances.

There is a good counter-argument that some will make that Sanders is actually closer to Corbyn because of how right-wing the States are, and he should be considered relative to his peers, not his policy platform. Because I'm boringly wonkish, I don’t buy it. It just feels like putting too much importance on rhetoric and relative placement and not enough on policy solutions.

It feels to me like saying the hunger that Corbyn is speaking to could be filled if Yvette Cooper had used the word “radical” a few more times. There’s a two-word rebuttal to that one: Owen Smith. 

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

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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.