Can you imagine Ed Miliband giving the following speech?
I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.’ No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own – nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything . . . Now, look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless – keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
If only, eh? The centre left in the UK tends to recoil from using such stridently populist language. Miliband, in particular, is sensitive to the tabloid charge of being “Red Ed”. But the centre left in the US? It’s got Elizabeth Warren: senator, former law professor and darling of the Democratic Party base.
It was Warren who delivered that rousing address in Andover, Massachusetts, in August 2011, a month before announcing her candidacy for the US Senate. (Spoiler alert: she won.) Her audience applauded wildly; the video of her speech went viral, amassing more than a million views online.
Here, it seemed for the first time, was an unashamedly left-wing US politician who could tell stories and capture the public mood; who could tailor a message for both middle-class and working-class voters; who was confident and unapologetic, rather than defensive and cautious.
In an age of Occupy Wall Street and Thomas Piketty, of growing public concern over income inequality and rising anger towards the big banks (including among supporters of the Republican Party), Warren has become a progressive superstar. Her memoir, A Fighting Chance, has been on the New York Times bestseller list since it was published in April. In the book, she recalls a dinner she was invited to in April 2009 with President Obama’s then chief economic adviser, Larry Summers. “Late in the evening, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” she writes. “I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access . . . [but they] also understand one unbreakable rule: they don’t criticise other insiders. I had been warned.”
The warning didn’t work. Four years later, Warren led the Senate Democrats’ campaign to prevent Summers from being nominated to run the US Federal Reserve. Hers is a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach. In February 2013, at her first appearance on the Senate banking committee, Warren skewered a gaggle of top regulators by asking when they had last prosecuted a major bank. Again, the video of her remarks went viral. So, too, did her July 2013 clash with a CNBC cable news host over whether or not to break up the big banks – it was viewed online more than a million times.
Will Warren dare to run against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for the presidency? She repeatedly tells reporters that she is “not running” for president, but hasn’t ruled it out. She is 64. If Clinton runs, wins and serves two terms, there won’t be a White House vacancy until 2024, when the Massachusetts senator will be 75.
It’s 2016 or never. Can she win? Junior senators with a single term on Capitol Hill, a lack of foreign-policy experience and an opponent called Clinton can’t win, right? I mean, er, just ask Obama.
Like Hillary Clinton, Warren is a feisty female with a national profile and a knack for fundraising: she secured $40m for her Senate race, more than half of it online. Unlike Clinton, who gave two paid speeches to Goldman Sachs in 2013 alone, Warren does not have to rely on the big banks for financial support: eight out of every ten contributions to her Senate campaign were less than $50.
Then again, whether she wins or not isn’t the issue. Simply by running, she will drag the centrist Clinton to the left and put the causes she cares about – financial reform, fairer taxes, income inequality – at the centre of the 2016 presidential election. A Warren candidacy would not just be “Hillary’s nightmare” – to quote the headline of the New Republic’s cover story on Warren last November – it would be Wall Street’s.
Ed Miliband tells friends he’s an admirer of Warren but he hasn’t yet been able to emulate her style, passion or rhetoric. (The only videos of Miliband that go viral involve him either robotically repeating himself or trying to eat a bacon sandwich.)
There is still time. On paper, Warren, lest we forget, is as wonkish as Miliband, if not more so. The Labour leader may sound professorial; Warren was a professor. There is no reason why the Labour leader, if he eschews the triangulating tendencies of some of his aides, stops giving dense speeches and takes a much stronger stance against Big Finance, can’t rediscover his own inner populist. He has done so before: on those brief occasions when he stood up to Rupert Murdoch or when he challenged the “big six” energy companies.
Forget the hapless Hollande or the opportunistic Obama: Elizabeth Warren’s way should be Ed Miliband’s way. You never know – he may even end up paying her a visit at the White House.
Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted