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Keir Starmer’s international inspiration

As Labour prepares for power, it is drawing lessons from its sister parties in the US, Australia, Germany and Spain.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Anthony Albanese became a beacon of hope for progressives when he brought an end to nine years of conservative rule in Australia and a long spell in opposition for the Labor Party. Amid the throng of jubilant supporters in Sydney last May were UK Labour Party staff, dispatched by the party’s general secretary, David Evans, to aid and learn from their sister party’s campaign.

Labour has a long tradition of co-operating with like-minded centre-left parties, and as the current leadership plots a course back to power that must negotiate climate change, the culture wars and economic crisis, its international links are proving to be a valuable asset. Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said Labor remained “the light on the hill” when she met Albanese in Canberra this month. Frontbenchers and senior officials are also in regular contact with key figures from Joe Biden’s Democrats, Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, who won the 2021 German election after 16 years of conservative-led government, and ruling politicians in Spain, Norway and across Europe.

Labour’s agenda that which has returned the centre left to power across the world: investment in green power, childcare and healthcare; a minimum wage linked to the cost of living; an industrial strategy prioritising job creation; greater devolution and anti-corruption measures.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, who worked as an economist at the British embassy in Washington, has adapted one of Biden’s messages with her vow to “buy, make and sell more in Britain”. Labour insiders are tight-lipped about high-level meetings with Democrats but it is clear that the parties are united in rejecting trickle-down economics and that Labour’s green jobs programme has echoes of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which included $375bn of subsidies for green industries.

[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]

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With Keir Starmer reportedly aiming for sector-by-sector deals with the EU, Scholz and his team, in particular, are said to be “incredibly generous” with their time. Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, has met Wolfgang Schmidt, the German chancellor’s closest aide, to discuss energy security and green power. Lisa Nandy has developed a rapport with Carsten Schneider, the minister for East Germany, after visiting Berlin last year as part of her levelling up brief.

Labour sees similar challenges to those in the Red Wall in parts of East Germany, where some voters were attracted by the far-right Alternative for Germany. The Social Democratic Party’s electoral revival in the region was crucial to its victory over the Christian Democrats, the party of Angela Merkel, in 2021. “It’s not perfectly analogous to the Red Wall because of the old east-west split,” said one Labour insider, “but it’s useful in thinking about how post-industrial areas are vulnerable to populism.”

The trade union movement is also facilitating meetings. Mariela Kohon, senior international officer for the Trades Union Congress, took a delegation of frontbenchers, including Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, to meet Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s deputy prime minister and minister for labour, in Madrid last October. Díaz is Spain’s most popular politician and is leading Sumar, a new left-wing electoral platform.

The delegation visited just as the government approved a windfall tax on banks to pay for public investment, and it took notes on Spain’s Rider Law, which forces platforms such as Amazon to treat all delivery drivers as employees rather than contractors. “The reforms made a real difference to people’s working lives and were popular,” said Kohon. “They brought out all the facts and figures which showed real tangible change for people.”

Policy work is just one aspect of Labour’s international relationships. The party was keenly aware when Starmer became leader in 2020 that its last general election victory was in 2005, now 18 years ago. Evans and Morgan McSweeney, the party’s campaign director, saw connecting with sister parties as vital to nurturing a winning mindset among staff.

Last week Paul Erickson, national secretary of the Australian Labor Party, gave strategic advice via video link to Labour staff at the party’s new headquarters in Southwark. Labour chiefs were content to lose half a dozen staff to their Australian sister party’s campaign, arguing that organisers would “learn and get sharp”. “A lot of people in Labour who do have experience of general elections have experience of bad general elections,” said one source, who emphasised that while Labour would not “import wholesale” the campaign tactics of other parties, the shared challenge of winning back blue collar workers was helping them evolve a best practice.

The right-wing Liberal Party of Scott Morrison, the previous prime minister, ultimately failed in its attempt to use trans rights and climate change to alienate Labor’s core supporters from Albanese. The victory was particularly symbolic for the British left because the Tory strategists Isaac Levido, who directed the Conservatives’ 2019 election campaign, and Ross Kempsell acted as Morrison’s advisers.

One Labour staff member who attended Erickson’s presentation said he emphasised that Starmer can win over voters who are not natural social progressives by seeking common ground and making a pro-worker pitch. “Part of winning those voters back is not necessarily trying to say that we have done a complete volte face and agree with them on every single issue. It’s about showing that you have a deep respect and empathy for people and how they live their lives.”

[See also: Sue Gray’s appointment as chief of staff is a coup for Keir Starmer]

Confronted on the doorstep by questions over trans rights, Australian Labor activists often told voters that “Scott Morrison is more interested in what’s in your pants than what’s in your wallet”. Starmer’s team believes a similar approach, focusing on economic concerns but shielding the party from accusations it is running scared of culture wars, could be effective in the UK.

Albanese was also able to forge empathy with voters as someone raised in a council home by a single mother. That has encouraged Starmer, a naturally reserved barrister, to open up about his modest upbringing.

The Labour team also admires the clarity of the German Social Democrats’ anti-populist “respect for you” message, with distinctive red posters of Scholz plastered across the country. “There was strong branding and visual identity,” said an insider. “It was all about going back to basics and leaning into what Scholz stands for rather than trying to make him something that he’s not.”

Labour further sees important lessons in the US Democrats’ digital campaign, which targeted Republican voters very closely, and its mobilisation of activists. Labour’s HQ has created a digital academy to train staff and is trialling a similar system to the Democrats at May’s local elections, which will allow activists focus their efforts on the closest-run races. 

This marks a departure from the community organising model championed during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which Starmer’s team sees as a throwback. “A lot of the techniques that the Democrats are using in terms of data, targeting and understanding demographics are ones we’ll trial at the local elections this year with a view to reviewing how it works and seeing if it’s applicable to the general election next year,” said a source. 

Labour’s links with its sister parties are demonstrating to Starmer’s team that “there is a path through for the centre left in terms of how you navigate populism and the post-financial crash world”, said another insider. “It is rooted in a foundational offer around jobs,” they added. “That’s one of the big things you’re hearing from Biden, from Scholz, and from Albanese. It’s a classic centre-left offer of good jobs, secure jobs that you can raise a family on, and dignity in work.”

Read more:

Keir Starmer essay: This is what I believe

How will Keir Starmer fund his “national missions” for Labour Britain?

PMQs today: Keir Starmer plays Rishi Sunak and Tory MPs off against each other

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