Commonspace caught up with the older Sanders brother in Edinburgh to get his take on the seismic shifts in electoral politics on both sides of the pond
“I WOULD certainly use the word socialist to describe myself,” says the 81-year-old Green party activist Larry Sanders when we sit down to talk in Edinburgh. Just across the street is the Augustine United Church, where later the former candidate will be rallying American citizens to cast their votes for his younger brother, the US presidential hopeful taking the American left by storm, Bernie. Augustines has long been home to many of Edinburgh’s left-wing and socialist meetings, so it seems an apt venue.
Growing up in 1930s Brooklyn to immigrant parents with his brother, whom he always calls ‘Bernard’, Larry Sanders came to the UK in the 1960s, becoming a social worker and lecturer in Oxfordshire. In the 2015 General Election he stood unsuccessfully as the Green party’s candidate in the area. It’s probably fair to place him on the left of the party; he says he would have “changed some things [in 2015], but it was a good manifesto”.
Bernie Sanders’ resurrection of the word ‘socialism’ in the US (he qualifies it with ‘democratic’) and his meteoric popularity among younger voters was not really forecast. But perhaps in Scotland and, since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the rest of the UK, it’s less surprising.
“The polls show Bernard is creating a new coalition, different from the so-called Liberals of recent years. It includes young people, the struggling working and middle classes, white collar and blue.” Larry Sanders
Bernie Sanders identifies a new demographic of people angry with the status quo and open to a radical message. “The polls show Bernard is creating a new coalition,” Larry explains, “different from the so-called Liberals of recent years. It includes young people, the struggling working and middle classes, white collar and blue.”
What brings them together, he thinks, is the stark inequality in which both the US and the UK lead the world.
“A couple weeks ago there was a study published by a nobel prize winner. It showed that for the tens of millions of people who did not go to university – a marker of being working class in America – for the first time in so many decades the average age at which they died has fallen.
“It’s alcoholism, suicide, despair. Now when that is happening to a significant section of your population, something pretty awful is happening.”
Such a situation, Larry says, requires “something big”. Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, both self-defined socialists, are seen as proof of that desire for change – but whether they can succeed is another question.
Larry Sanders with CommonSpace reporter Jen Stout
Corbyn, Larry thinks, faces a battle to deal with his own party let alone the opposition. Labour “advertise themselves as having political realism but can’t see that they need to get on board with what Corbyn is doing,” he says. “I think they’re politically stupid. There’s a strong chance that Corbyn won’t be able to use his astonishing victory to break through.”
Larry is more optimistic about his brother’s chances: “If he gets the nomination, he will win the presidency.”
Only hours after the interview, though, Bernie Sanders’ rival Hillary Clinton won a resounding victory in South Carolina. He is up against both the fast-growing far-right campaign of Donald Trump, and the centre-right liberalism of Clinton. Larry admits his brother’s fight is “still uphill”.
“But my gut feeling is that he will win. Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t a poll showing improvement,” he adds.
“My gut feeling is that he [Bernie Sanders] will win. Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t a poll showing improvement.” Larry Sanders
“Somebody like Trump is disliked by so many people and is such an obnoxious person, and all the others – their politics are so right-wing and so nasty. They haven’t had to face somebody like Bernard who’s not afraid to say they’re full of crap, and that what they’re doing is damaging to real people.”
The rhetoric of Trump’s far-right campaign is indeed so extreme as to make the UK’s Tory government sound compassionate in comparison. But Larry contends that the right has “no real constituency”, making gains instead due to their power over the media and “a certain amount of fear”.
Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, but this weekend’s South Carolina contest showed that a major problem for Bernie Sanders’ campaign is turnout among his younger supporters.
The demographic divide between the two Democrats’ supporters is unquestionably along lines of age and wealth, with Clinton’s being older and richer – a divide not unfamiliar to Scots after the stark results of the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014.
Like many – though not all – in the Green party, Larry says he is in favour of Scottish independence. “The excitement and intensity of the discussion was something I’ve not seen in my 40 years in the UK. It was marvellous, the fact that people were so interested in their own future.”
“There’s things I like about the SNP, some things I don’t like. But I’m pleased it’s there. And everything I hear about Rise [the left-wing alliance] is great.” Larry Sanders
And now? Do do the intricacies of Scottish politics reach Oxfordshire? Larry is somewhat in the loop. “There’s things I like about the SNP, some things I don’t like. But I’m pleased it’s there. And everything I hear about Rise [the left-wing alliance] is great. But I’m devoted to the Green party – my great hope is we’ll be able to work across the boundaries.”
Both Hillary and Bill Clinton – the former US president – weighed in during the 2014 campaign, urging Scots to vote No, and President Obama spoke about the need for a “strong and united partner”.
But it seems we’ll have to wait to find out what Bernie Sanders’ constitutional preference is in this case, as Larry is giving nothing away on that front. To be fair, Bernie might have other more pressing issues to deal with right now.
With activists from the Green party, Larry Sanders is reaching out to Americans in the UK to urge them to cast their vote for his brother via the ‘Democrats Abroad’ scheme.
He says the reaction in the UK to Bernie’s campaign has been “astonishing”, though it does have one downfall: “People come up to me in the street all the time and say, ‘Oh, how’s Bernie doing?’. Then they might remember to say ‘And how are you?’ I get slightly upset!”
CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in – support our new media.
Picture courtesy of Adam Ramsay