It’s a long road time from when I interviewed Bernie Sanders for Tribune as mayor of small town in Vermont, or as the only avowed elected socialist in Congress. There is a genuine special relationship between the progressive wings of British and American politics. The upsurge of support for Sanders among Democrats parallels the huge groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election. To a large extent we can thank the Bill Clinton/Tony Blair axis. The recently released notes of the conversations between the two show them spending a lot of time on the “Third Way,” planning global meetings of the New Labour/DLC Axis, the Centre Left.
Before they took up office, several of us met Blair in New York when he and Gordon Brown came to “learn from the Clinton campaign”. Disturbed, even then, by the uncritical enthusiasm for Bill, we remonstrated that he would sell his grandmother in the street for votes. Blair blurted: “But he wins elections!”
Reckless about the feelings of grandmothers, let alone the traditional constituencies, the poor and minorities and trade unionists, whose cause would be given away, let alone sold, to win elections, Clinton set the model for New Labour – ostentatiously disavowing calumniated “special interest groups”, while pandering to the right. Unlike Clinton, the Blair administration did a lot of good work – but party bosses did not want anyone boasting about it, in case it alienated the financiers whom they hoped would replace the unions as bankrollers for the party.
In both cases, the plan was to hollow out the popular base of the parties, denying members effective input on policy or candidates, to reduce it to a PO box for corporate donations. As we saw in the Labour Party, it became a self-perpetuating career escalator for machine politicians that eventually ruthlessly weeded out any signs of dissent and any ties with the unions apart from topping up the collection box.
New Labour tried to introduce primaries, copying US practice, but the plan foundered on the different political histories. It was the unforeseen consequence of this emulation of primaries that it allowed Jeremy Corbyn to tap into the deep reservoirs of disaffection with machine politicians, whose main manifestation hitherto had been abstention at one level or another from the political process.
Continuing the parallels, neither the New Labour establishment, nor Hillary Clinton’s courtiers, cocooned as they were in their incestuous world, realised how disaffected the core constituencies and potential activists were, let alone that Sanders and Corbyn could tap that resentment and potential enthusiasm.
Hillary, following in her husband’s footsteps with the corporate begging bowl, thought politics was all a matter of collecting big cheques from Wall Street and Hollywood. Sanders actually raised more money than her, from millions of individuals who piled their widow’s mites into his campaign. In the unlikely event of bumping into Blair again, I could cheerily say: “But he wins redneck male support.” There are, for once, real lessons for the British Labour Party. Sanders has made a virtue of saying the unsayable. He has attacked bankers, called for a universal healthy service, supported unions, called for higher wages and more protections for workers. Rather than let the media and political elite set his agenda, he has set his own, which resonates with millions of people. He calls himself a socialist, which effectively disarms the opposition. Where conventional wisdom made “higher taxes” a magic curse dooming any candidate, Sanders made it a battle cry against the rich.
There are differences. Sanders came from so far off-field the media did not know what to do with him and Hillary’s supporters hoped that if they ignored him, he would sink into obscurity. He didn’t, and now their attacks only galvanise his supporters. Attention has also transformed Corbyn from an obscure backbencher into a media titan, and it can allow him to stick to the Labour agenda, with the refreshing change that the public had few expectations of previous trimming incumbents but have been primed by the daily hate sessions from the media to expect Corbyn to propound a full Labour agenda. And Sanders is only vying to be the candidate – while Corbyn already is.