Ruaraidh Maciver talks with Larry Sanders, British politician and brother of aspiring Democratic Presidential nominee, US Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Most people are by now aware of the meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Primary. Outwith his own state, many were unaware of the Brooklyn born politician in America, and even less knew of his career in Europe. The Vermont senator was initially viewed as representing an extreme view of a small minority within the United States, and that his campaign would soon be eclipsed by that of the second coming of Clinton.
Instead, to the surprise and delight of many, the world has witnessed a gradual and consistent swell in support for the Sanders campaign, with over 40% of Democratic voters placing faith in Democratic Socialism.
In the hope to raise further support from Americans living abroad, Bernie’s brother Larry Sanders is touring the UK in the hope to gain extra votes for his younger sibling. Larry Sanders is a British politician who was previously a member of Oxfordshire County Council and has recently been appointed the Health Spokesperson for the Green Party.
Earlier this week, Mr Sanders came to St Andrews, and the St Andrews Economist were fortunate enough to be invited to interview the British politician on both his own career and his thoughts on the state of British politics, and that of his brothers campaign.
With the fact that your brother is running for President of the United States, it surprises most people to know that you’ve spent a large portion of your life with British politics, what was it that first brought you to the UK?
“I went travelling in my late twenties and I met a very nice English girl and we got married and we settled in New York. But when she got pregnant she thought she’d rather be with her friends and relatives, and we thought it’d be a good idea, and one thing led to another…” [laughs]
Other than the political systems between the US and the UK, what would you say, in your experiences, has been the biggest difference between how politics functions in the UK, compared to the US?
“When I came here in the late 60’s, I felt that there was a difference in that there was a greater British commitment to some kind of social contract. There was a connection between people and that there were limits beyond which people were not going to be pushed, and probably the best single element of that was the NHS.”
“Unfortunately I think that Britain, or certainly England, has moved in a different direction since, in some ways there are more similarities.”
Talking of how England has changed, you used to be a member of the Labour Party. Did you leave it because you felt that it had moved too far to the right with Tony Blair?
“Labour party members are very odd. They’re quite used to being at odds with their national party. In my experience most of them thought that they were more like Socialists than the national party, which came and went, and was not always to be relied on. What really got to me and took me completely away from the Labour Party was local stuff.”
“Tony Blair kept the Tory budget for the first year or two in office, and that meant very large cuts, not as large as recently, but very large cuts. One of the things that was proposed was doing away with the night care service.”
“You can imagine the level of disability of people who need care overnight and can’t get through the night without care. Now that was a big thing, but the second thing was that the law hadn’t changed, these people were still entitled to the service. So the only way they could save money was by deceiving them, by pretending.”
“I wrote a paper for the meeting, explaining the legal background and so on, so that no one would be in any doubt because I have a legal background as well as social work background. And all the labour party people, many of whom were old friends of mine, at the very least old colleagues of mine, people I’d worked with, voted for it. And that, I thought, was something so far out from anything I could work with that I couldn’t see myself being connected to the Labour party.”
“There was one member of the committee who said the kind of things that I would have said and she was one of the two Green Party councillors. I didn’t join the Green party immediately but that was a turning point in that way as well”
Do you think that this shift in the Labour Party is what’s given rise, especially in the last election to a swell in votes for the SNP for example within Scotland and the Green Party within England and Wales?
“The Labour Party, to be honest, I don’t understand it. In the last election we had about 20 local debates, and the Labour Party woman was very admirable, and in fact worked in her day job for Oxfam, and I was quoting her statistics on inequality, which must have been very galling to her [laughs]. They were figures and statistics that had happened during Labour as well as Conservative and Coalition government times. It was evident that things were shifting and that Labour had no policy.”
“So yes. The Labour Party had just drifted out of any real relevance to the people who they were meant to be representing.”
Do you think the Junior Doctors contract has set a precedent with how the Conservative party is going to deal with the NHS?
“Yes. I think that the gloves are off. They’ve been damaging the NHS since they took power in the coalition, the outsourcing and privatisation has increased dramatically, it’s still a minority but it has increased year by year – month by month even. The underfunding, they [the NHS] said they were going to be £30bn short over a 4 or 5 year period, so they [the Conservatives] were going to put £8bn in and would find £22bn by efficiency savings. Well nobody serious ever thought that that was real, £22bn was going to be a cut in the service, a very massive one, and it’s beginning to work its way through.”
“What they’re offering is longer hours, more work, more stress and less pay.”
“That is, I think, laying down the gauntlet and saying, you knuckle under and do what we say, or else we will push you to the wall. I’m sad that the doctors are going to do what they have to do, because people will suffer, but they will try to minimise the suffering because that’s their job.”
How do you feel the Conservative government is handling the refugee situation?
“Well probably in the worst way possible. I don’t know, it’s not completely simple. My first impulse is to say that these people are in desperate need and they need to be admitted and succoured, that’s what we do. But I do understand that you have to be somewhat cautious. Mrs Merkel with her first response might have ended up doing more harm in terms of German politics than she needed to do. So there may be adjustments in the speed of the flow, but the numbers certainly should be massively larger than they have been. And the tone has certainly been antagonising. Going to Europe and asking for ways to curtail the benefits that working Europeans get for example, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Syrian migration.”
Do you feel that Cameron is attempting to shift focus away from the major issues with his deal with the EU
“He probably is.”
“I have to tell you, given the size and scale of the problems that we face, and I think that they are very big and I think that we can have real crisis’ in the next few years, to worry about Cameron, who is essentially just a person who wanted to be elected to office and who all of his policies have nothing to do with anything real but with perception and PR, I find it painful to think about him. So I’m not even going to give a crummy answer about him.”
With Jeremy Corbyn, do you feel that Labour now can win back their disillusioned voters?
“What we don’t know is who’s going to win the battle for the Labour party. I think most Green Party people, or at least certainly myself am very pleased that Jeremy Corbyn won. Most of his policies are closer to our policies, and he and Caroline have often worked together as well as voting together. So that is a huge step forward. But whether the Labour party establishment, whether they will give up power? That’s another question.”
“One of the times when we will know about that is on March 11th, as there is a vote on Caroline Lucas’ bill to re-instate the NHS. The bills main function is to end the internal market and to reverse privatisation and to stop it from happening again. Those are some of the key issues in it, it’s a big bill but those are some of the main points. Jeremy Corbyn, before he was leader of the Labour Party, voted with Caroline on that bill, with only a handful of other Labour Party people.”
“My fear is that if the Labour Party cannot get its act together on its greatest contribution to British society, the NHS, then what will they unite over?”
So do you think that Jeremy Corbyn can lead Labour back to what it used to be?
“At the moment I fear that Jeremy Corbyn will not be able to succeed in what he would like to do. I hope I’m wrong.”
There have been a lot of comparisons made between Jeremy Corbyn and your brother, Bernie Sanders, and these comparisons usually range from anything from policy to the fact that they’re both viewed as non-establishment figures. Do you think that these are good comparisons?
“Well within a certain range they certainly are correct. They’re both strong on anti-austerity and the idea that the banking crisis should be visited upon the poorest people in the country is beyond contempt. In a large chunk of their economic policies there are similarities.”
Why is it do you feel, that your brother, like Jeremy Corbyn, has a lot of support from people my age, whereas Hillary Clinton has a lot of support from older voters?
“Well I think there are two reasons. First, the underlying big picture is that we have had a crisis of inequality that has been in the making for forty years. It has been pretty steady, with blips, but by and large wealth and power have been flowing from the bulk of the population in the UK and the US towards the very richest people. That is having an impact upon large numbers of people, and young people, by their very definition are starting out. Many middle aged people or elderly people have got a niche, they’ve got a job of some sort, they’ve got a foot in the housing market, and so they can ride some of the bumps.”
“The other thing of course, is that older people are, in a way, more accustomed to the way things have gone and sometimes that leads to a kind of apathy. That’s the way it is, it’s been like that for as long as I can remember.”
Why is it, do you think, that yourself and your brother grew up with such strongly aligned political beliefs?
“Our parents were not particularly political, they did not belong to any organisation and didn’t go out to meetings much. But they were like everyone else in our neighbourhood, and much of America, staunch New Dealers. They thought that Roosevelt had been a brilliant president and that government can do useful things for people and that we grew up with. And I think that when Bernard went a few months ago to give his definition of Democratic Socialism, he talked much more about Franklin Roosevelt than he did about any other Socialist leader.”
“I’ve come a long way from the starting question [laughs], but no our politics were not unusual. And also Jewish Americans of that period, people in the generation before who had emigrated in the 1880’s to around the First World War, I don’t think a majority were socialist, but with them came a real sense that a community and that communities do exist. People do work together and do help each other, and that translated into a left wing politics, not necessarily socialist, although sometimes it was.”
Is there anything you and your brother fundamentally disagree on, or causes heated debate in terms of policy?
[laughs] “If there was I wouldn’t tell you.”
[laughs] “But no we are amazingly aligned I have to say.”
Had your brother ever considered running for POTUS before? And was he at all reluctant about running in this presidential race?
“I don’t think he seriously thought about it before, I don’t remember him talking about it at all in that way. He was very reluctant this time, he waited and waited, but he thought that the situation was such that there needed to be someone representing his politics or similar, and he would have been happy is someone else had come along, perhaps Senator Warren, but nobody did. But he was quite determined that he wasn’t going to run unless he could do reasonably well.”
“The way he put it to me was that he didn’t mind being humiliated, he’d been humiliated in elections before, and he had a marvellous job. Senator for Vermont, if he’d been offered that forty or fifty years ago he would have said that it is the job he likes most in the world, and with people who will vote for him for as long as he wants them to, because they’re very fond of him.”
“But he thought if somebody with his policies loses, then the others would be able to turn and say ‘look, you see? There is no place for a healthcare system etc.’ All the people he thinks there are who really need those policies, would have been destroyed for a generation.”
“He went for it not to play around, not to shift Hillary Clinton’s opinions or policy’s or anything, but to win.”
Do you think that your brothers’ campaign has in any way effected Hillary Clinton’s stance?
I think that he has affected some of her reported stances, whether it has made a deep difference in her own personal politics I don’t know.
If Hillary happened to win the primaries would you and your brother support her?
Well, my support will be of very little significance. Bernard has said that he will support her.”
“To run as an independent or not support the Democratic candidate could very well let in a Republican candidate which would be much worse for the country, so he will support Hillary Clinton.”
In the course of this interview I discovered Mr Sanders to be a man of great humbleness, being more than comfortable to admit if he felt himself to unqualified on topics put before him, typically prefacing them with a self-deprecating joke. He also harbours great respect and admiration for his brother, referring to him affectionately as “Bernard” throughout the course of the evening.
No more can this be clearly seen than during a wider question and answer session which took place later that evening, in which Mr Sanders assured a filled Buchanan Lecture theatre that if his brothers critics thought that he was going to falter, they need only look at his history as a cross country runner to see his “incredible endurance and determination.”
I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Mr Sanders and his partner later that night, and it proved to be one of the most fascinating and thoughtful evenings of my life, only further cementing my original opinion of him as a man of great humour, intelligence and integrity.
I must thank Mr Sanders and his partner for taking the time out of their busy schedule to spend the time with us here in St Andrews, and I would personally like to wish him, and his brother, every success in the coming elections.
Featured image Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press