Larry Sanders, brother of US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, is visiting St Andrews, in a trip organised by the St Andrews branch of Students for Bernie Sanders, to speak to students about his political career in the UK, the upcoming US election and his brother’s campaign.
The Saint was fortunate enough to speak with Mr Sanders about the aforementioned issues and when we sat down for our interview, the similarities between him and his younger brother were immediately striking. Speaking in the same distinctive Brooklyn accent, Mr Sanders described the political philosophy that unites him with his “democratic socialist” sibling, whom he refered to throughout as “Bernard.” He also spoke to us about his own experiences in the UK since moving here in the late 60’s.
Active in politics from a young age, Mr Sanders joined the Democratic Party while at college in New York.
“In the early 60’s I was active on the lower east side of Manhattan in a group attempting to take power from the official Democratic organisation,” he told us, citing his involvement in a group known as the Reform Democrats.
“The key issue was urban renewal, and our slogan was ‘urban renewal is poor people removal.’”
So how did the brother of the now very famous Vermont senator end up living in the UK? “Very simple, I went travelling, met a very nice English girl, we got married, set up shop in New York, and when she was pregnant, she thought she’d rather be with her friends and family so we came here,” Mr Sanders tells us.
However, Mr Sanders’ involvement in politics did not end with his move to the UK.
Active within the Labour Party in the 80’s, he held a number of elected roles in the Oxford Labour Party.
In 2000, he left Labour for the Green Party, where he stood as a candidate for Oxfordshire council, winning a seat in 2005 that he held for eight years. He eventually served as the leader of the Green Party on the council.
“The things that I [have] focused on, especially since I’ve been in the Green Party have been things to do with health and social care,” he said.
“In my paid job I was working for organisations like Oxfordshire Carers Forum, carers being people looking after disabled relatives.
“Then I worked for Oxfordshire Community Care Rights, helping people to get the services they need.”
“Also, I’ve been a member of ‘Keep Our NHS Public’ for about ten years now,” he added.
Indeed, earlier this month, Mr Sanders became the national spokesperson for health and social care for the Green Party of England and Wales.
Mr Sanders disparages the reforms past governments have made to the NHS, saying, “Sadly, I think Labour, Conservatives and the Coalition governments have been working against the NHS, and a properly funded NHS.”
Though in a point of notable non-partisanship, he praised the Blair government for increasing the funding that the NHS receives.
He heavily criticises the recent reforms made to the NHS, which many have labelled as an attempt at privatisation. Labelling the internal market within the service as “destructive” he spoke of his support for Caroline Lucas’ (the only Green member of parliament) “NHS Reinstatement bill”, which he says will undo the “privatisation” of parts of the NHS and “return the NHS to [its] original concept.”
Speaking about the recent disputes between the government and junior doctors. He said that the actions of politicians such as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt were “very frightening,” adding that “it’s a stupid battle for them to be having.”
He continues, “junior doctors will leave NHS, it will the set hospital system back a generation.
“It’s a sign that the government is taking the gloves off and that their attack on the NHS has to be more rapid and destructive.
“I’m very pleased the junior doctors, and behind them the BMA (British Medical Association), are taking them on.
“The fact that they’re fighting back is a marvellous sign.”
“I did drag him [Bernie] to some of the Young Democrat meetings – he found it incredibly boring, but he was a conscientious younger brother and he came when I asked him to”
On the formation of his own political views, Mr Sanders told The Saint that he has never attempted to follow a rigid ideology.
“I’ve never paid enough attention to ideology in a certain organised fashion.
“I started out following certain gut feelings, which most people I think do.
“I think [my views] probably pan out to be kind of socialist or at the very least social democratic.
“I was never tempted by the authoritarian left or by organisations that conduct most of their activities in private, I always thought if you’re going to have a democratic society, and I think that’s the only hope for us, then it has to be in public and I think people have to be talking to each other.”
Describing how, as the older brother, he got involved in politics first he told The Saint that, surprisingly, his brother was not always the champion of political activism that we know him as today.
“I did drag him [Bernie] to some of the Young Democrat meetings – he found it incredibly boring, but he was a conscientious younger brother and he came when I asked him to.”
Mr Sanders is passionate in his view that the problems his brother describes are not unique to America.
“The issues in the UK and US are not dissimilar, and the central issue is the growth of inequality and the growth of poverty,” he tells The Saint.
“In the last 40 years, there has been a shift of income from the bulk of the income to the very richest people and it’s having all sorts of consequences, and a lot of the consequences are felt by people just starting out.”
He emphasises how students may particularly resonate with the message of his brother because the economic upheaval of recent years is affecting them just as they start out in life, but also makes clear that Senator Sanders’ support among students is not just a “protest movement.”
“The issues in the UK and US are not dissimilar, and the central issue is the growth of inequality and the growth of poverty”
“It’s a message for the whole population, that you can and should have a government that works for everybody and not just a small number.”
With seeming hopefulness, he says that, “we could have a real realignment in American politics right now.”
In what could be a slight towards Senator Sanders’ rival Hillary Clinton and her husband former President Bill Clinton, who have been criticised by parts of the Democratic party for being too far to the right of politics on many issues, he said:
“For quite a long while, so called ‘liberal’ politicians and those who call themselves ‘moderates’ have done very badly,” saying they have “worked against the interests of those who voted for them.”
“Bernard is first major politician who’s shifting that.”
Mr Sanders also cited the support Ms Clinton enjoys among “those earning above $200,000” as evidence that she would not protect the interests of the most vulnerable in society as well as his brother would.
On the subject of the other candidate for presidency enjoying unexpected success, Mr Sanders said that the support for the reality TV star and real estate tycoon Donald Trump may be coming from a similar place as his brother’s.
“Some of the support that people like Trump are getting is from people who have been damaged by the same kind of economic policies that the people who are beginning to support Bernard have suffered,” he says.
Adding, “Unfortunately, it’s quite traditional that people who are feeling hurt will often turn to demagogues who are pointing at minorities, saying they are the cause of problems.”
He also suggested that the support for UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) may also be arising for comparable reasons. Though he adds that UKIP have gathered such support in a less “obnoxious” manner than Mr Trump.
He also praises the rise of Jeremy Corbyn within the Labour party in the UK, as part of the same “anti-austerity” movement that the Greens support.
In Mr Sanders’ eyes, “austerity” – the blanket term for the cuts in public services and welfare introduced by the Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats, in government – is a “disgusting and economically senseless” attempt to balance the effects of the Great Recession on the backs of the poorest people in society.
Here to try and convince students to take part in the global Democratic primary, which takes places up until 8 March, Mr Sanders says that he hopes students will vote as, “It gives them real say, and probably more say than in their own states.”
He went further, arguing that students should get involved in what he clearly sees as an era-defining election.
“I think that this shift of wealth and income is not accidental nor is it determined by other forces, in other words, there are certain economic and political players who have done things to make the money go in their direction,” he said.
Continuing, “if that shift is not altered and reversed really with redistribution back towards the bulk of the population, the economy in the usual sense will suffer.”
“The amount of anger and unhappiness will increase.
“We know from the Trump example, but not just from that, it can lead to all sorts of anti-minority and anti-immigrant attitudes.
“Politicians probably always say this, but I think it is true, we’re at a particularly critical point, and if we don’t alter the political balance, which starts with the control of the economy by a very small number of people, who use that control for their own purposes, we can’t get things like proper climate change policies or proper healthcare policies.
“If we don’t deal with that, in every way of measuring, there are real serious problems that we face.”
“There is no reason why rich countries like the UK, like the US, cannot have a reasonable standard of living for all their people,” he adds.
“I think that this shift of wealth and income is not accidental nor is it determined by other forces, in other words, there are certain economic and political players who have done things to make the money go in their direction”
Mr Sanders also spoke to The Saint about the topic of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, in the wake of a video of Senator Sanders being arrested during a protest which emerged earlier this week.
While telling us how he personally was not deeply involved, for his brother, it was a formative life experience.
“When he got in he jumped in with both feet.”
Going on, he said, “The point at which his political life was set was during that period during the civil rights movement.”
He acknowledged criticism from Congressman John Lewis, who said that he “never saw” Senator Sanders during the civil rights movement, and questioned the level of the senator’s involvement.
“He [Senator Sanders] was not a major leader, like Congressman Lewis, who was a great, great man in that movement,” he said, adding, “but Bernard played his role.”
“The point at which his political life was set was during that period during the civil rights movement.”
As an example he told The Saint of his brother’s involvement in the campaign to desegregate University of Chicago buildings, something he says the Senator was deeply committed to.
“I think from that moment on, his sense of what his life would be about, was set and it centres around equality and justice for all,” he says.
“He has been one of the most consistent politicians that I can remember.”
“I’m astonishingly proud of him.”
While he also acknowledges that the campaign will not be easy, he believes his brother will win the presidential election, but that it will be close.
With that in mind his final message to the American students of St Andrews and Democrats Abroad across the world is that, “The vote people will be casting is a very important vote.”
“I do hope people will take it seriously.”
Voting for the global Democratic Presidential Primary is open until 8 March.