POLITICS

Bernie Sanders' British-Based Brother On How Left-Wing Politics Can Win In The US And UK - But Why Jeremy Corbyn Will Be Taken Down

12/27/2015 07:07 pm 19:07:53 | Updated 27 December 2015
Getty/Channel 4

The British-based brother of socialist US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders fears Jeremy Corbyn will not be elected Prime Minister in the UK because he will be brought down by the Labour “establishment”.

Larry Sanders, who has lived in the UK since the 1960s and is a former member of the Labour Party, told The Huffington Post UK he could have been “tempted” to re-join under the Islington North MP’s leadership "if I thought for a minute he has a chance of winning”.

Mr Sanders, who stood for the Green Party in the general election, said he severed his association with Labour after Tony Blair’s first Budget failed to reverse Tory cuts to social care.

The 80-year-old believes it is “unlikely but not impossible” that his younger brother can beat Hillary Clinton to the Democrat presidential nomination, and if he does he is certain his sibling will be elected President.

Political commentators have noted the similarities between the recent rise of Bernie Sanders, a veteran independent-turned-Democrat Senator for Vermont, and Corbyn - both formerly left-wing outsiders’ whose views are apparently at odds with the political consensus.

jeremy corbyn rally

Jeremy Corbyn, whose success has been compared to Bernie Sanders'

Larry Sanders thinks regardless of whether either his brother or Mr Corbyn attain high office, their success proves there is a “hunger” for politics that rejects the centre-left template set by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. "Bernard is doing a very big thing,” he said.

He rejects charges both men are “unelectable”, arguing Bernie has long attracted support beyond the “mythological group of highly-educated, firmly socialist, left-wing” and that is “very similar with Jeremy Corbyn, and with the Green Party”.

But both men face similar hurdles, including a party machine that opposes them and a hostile media.

“The question is whether Corbyn can succeed,” Mr Sanders said. “My own feeling is probably not. That establishment (Labour MPs, councillors and party officials) would much sooner lose an election which they expect to lose anyway than to give up a party that is a central part of their lives.

“In America it’s the same. Clinton's advantage is that enormous network – of wealth and a position in a Democratic establishment."

Full interview continues below

The Huffington Post UK spoke to Mr Sanders at his home in Oxford, where he was formerly a Green Party councillor and remains a party member. Despite living in the UK since 1968, the retired lawyer, social worker and lecturer retains a Brooklyn burr, moderated by the occasional home counties vowel.

Mr Sanders explains the brothers’ shared political values (he won’t reveal any differences) were informed by their “New Dealer” parents (Franklin D Roosevelt’s post-war New Deal recovery programme) and being Jewish children whose father’s family was wiped out by the Nazis in Poland.

While it was “not hard to realise politics is big stuff”, they “talked more about baseball than politics, I'm sure” when growing up.

He speaks to Bernie - or “Bernard” as he always refers to him - every couple of weeks, and has in recent weeks been on the Democrat campaign trail. He expects to go over to the US for the party national convention in July and intends to vote as a member of the Democrats abroad group.

Bernard has been to the UK just half a dozen times, but gets “most of his slant” on British politics from his brother.

HuffPost: What does Bernard make of British politics?

Larry Sanders: “I think he sees the Labour Party in its post-war period as having the equivalent of the New Deal. Similar policies and doing some things the New Deal didn’t accomplish. He's aware of the Blair period. And I think he would see it – I'm putting words into his mouth here, we haven’t discussed it in detail – in the same way as what happened in America, which was the centre-left party moved to the right. And everything moves to the right when that happens.

“The right-wing party is enabled to win, and the left-wing party gives up its story. And you end up with Clintons and Blairs. I think he sees that as a problem.

“One of the reasons he has been active was because of an absence of the Left in America, and the reason why he ran for President. He waited a very long time hoping someone else would. He was not keen to run for President. He wasn't even very keen to be President. But it wasn't going to happen, nobody else was going to do it, and there was a hunger for his kind of politics."

The resurgence of the Left is easy to explain, he says. "It's the economy, stupid,” he says, lifting the famous Clinton campaign maxim but “in a deeper sense than Clinton meant it”.

“Not just the ups and downs over a period of a year or two," he reckons. “The increase of wealth has gone to a very small number of people and the degree of polarity has increased. At the bottom end you get increased poverty, and in the middle you have a huge amount of stress."

For young people the “easy optimism” of “getting ahead, going to university, getting a professional job” has evaporated in the US and it’s “not that different here”. The struggle to buy a house underlines why this is not “coffee house debating”. “It's where are you going to live. That stuff breaks through.”

"It’s not new, it’s not that last year was a bad year. It's not even since 2008 it's been bad. It's something that has gone on since the mid-1970s. In many countries. There is an audience that knows about things he is talking about that when he says them people think 'ah'."

Some have claimed Larry’s normal “look” - antithesis to the polished politico - has also helped capture the public imagination. But Larry sees it as “more serious than that”.

“If it was another smooth suit it would be harder for people to believe in it. They wouldn’t listen. But it’s the underlying fact: that something different has happened in the economy."

bernie sanders

Bernie Sanders speaks during a Democratic presidential primary this month


He thinks the roots of the Corbyn phenomena are "absolutely similar” if “not quite as extreme as America”, notably a sense the “economy and government aren’t working for them”

And both Bernie Sanders and Mr Corbyn are facing “powerful opposition”: popular with party supporters, much less so with the party’s elected politicians and officials.

"What Bernard has found with the Democrats is astonishing. In the polls, you get something like 35-40% of Democrats supporting Bernard. Amongst the elected officials, party officials, union officials, it’s about a tenth of 1%. So there is a vast establishment that makes a very good living out of that party and unions.

“It's quite the same thing here.

"Corbyn had 15, 20 of the MPs that wanted to vote for him – out of 200 MPs. So he had less than 10% support. I would imagine around the country people who have come into Labour politics in the last 25 years or so around 90% of them would be not Corbyn-ites.”

The “establishment” will defeat him, he suspects. “In America it’s the same.”

Mr Sanders says there is much to admire about the Corbyn position - though it’s not blemish-free. "Anti-austerity, opposition to the growth of inequality, certainly. They're very similar to Bernard's. Foreign policy and so on – there's probably more big differences. But I can't pretend to have studied it."

Mr Sanders was an active Labour Party member in the 1980s but “consciously dissociated” himself in the late-1990s. It wasn’t Blair-ism, the “Third Way” or ditching wholesale re-nationalisation that pushed him away, but the reality that New Labour appeared little different from the Conservative Party.

He explains the first year of the Blair government coincided with working with carers helping severely disabled people, and witnessing Labour councillors nod through “horrendous cuts” to social care - and care in the night in particular.

“It’s hard to imagine how disabled a person is that they need care in the night,” he says.

“They can’t get through the night without somebody there or the possibility of getting in touch with somebody. People holding on living in their own home by their fingernails. Very admirable people and everyone would recognise that this government should be supporting them, and had been. They abolished the night care service.”

More than that, those affected were not told they were still entitled to the care if they asked for it. “So you had to take away the service, and lie, and all these Labour guys put their hand up. This wasn't ‘I don't like Blair's views on re-nationalising a rail line’. It was ‘oh my god’. That was the end of my Labour Party days. This was life and death."

The only councillor to oppose the cuts “was a young Green woman”. “So there is somebody else," he said.

HuffPost: Could Jeremy Corbyn tempt you back to the Labour Party?

Larry Sanders: "If I thought for a minute he has a chance of winning I would be tempted. But I don't think he has a chance of beating the Labour establishment.”


Instead, he sees Corbyn as an “ally”, and should be coming to the Greens for their expertise, and is keenly watching Labour’s response to Green MP Caroline Lucas’s Bill to strip privatisation from the NHS.

He rubbishes the suggestion that since both his brother and Mr Corbyn are deemed “unelectable” they should disappear to the fringes.

"It’s not like you’re organising a secret army. You have to do it through public debate. And if your view is not in the public domain and you know it’s not going to be out there by the right or the newspapers or even the BBC, it's gone."

He goes on: "Bernard is doing a very big thing. Millions of people will have thoughts they didn’t know they had before. Corbyn hasn’t had that chance here because the counter-attack has been so effective."

So if Corbyn can’t win, can his brother? He thinks there is an "imaginable route" where Bernie wins the New Hampshire and Iowa state primaries, prompting a "blast of big publicity" in the southern states where he has been largely ignored to date.

"It's unlikely but not impossible. Everything he has done now is impossible. You cannot run a campaign without big money, every follower of American politics knows that and it turns it wasn't true. He made it untrue. You can't break through when you've got almost all the media against you. He found social media has opened up places that didn’t exist. Americans will run a mile when they hear the word socialist – well, millions of people say they support him. I think it would be foolish to be too firm about what he can’t do."

He adds: “If – and it’s a huge if – he gets the nomination he’ll be the President. He'll get similar votes from Democrats and he'll get votes from Independents and some Republicans Clinton’'ll never get.”

By polling up to 40% of people who identify them as Democrat, his support is "huge". "He has long since grown out of this mythological group of highly-educated, firmly socialist, left-wing of people. I can't believe that's more than hundreds of thousands of people in America. And if he wins those primaries, tens of millions of people will hear.

"I think it’s very similar with Jeremy Corbyn, and with the Green Party. It’s very odd that you should expect the populace to be voting for policies that benefit a tiny part of the populace when most people aren’t sharing that."

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