Bernie Sanders @ Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye

“Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’/Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum”

CAN politicians win from the left? Bernie Sanders tried but isn’t the president of the United States and in the UK, Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn isn’t prime minister – at least not yet.

Bernie Sanders at the Hay Festival (Peter Williams)

But rather than ask can candidates who shun the safety of the centrist play book win perhaps it’s time to ask what keeps them from winning – or how do they set about winning?

Though Sanders didn’t make any direct reference to the UK election, less than a week away when he spoke at the Hay Festival, he made sure to mention what he considered the obstacles to his success, the biggest of which was the Democratic Party establishment.

It almost answered the question I’d have liked to have posed to Sanders had I had the chance. Why if he represents the issues voters care about did he not win enough votes in the Democratic Primary to go forward to the November election?

Rapper Killer Mike supported Sanders’ campaign. The pair recorded a series of interviews together in his Atlanta barber shop, but as Kendrick Lamar makes the point, rappers who embody the qualities rap fans say they care about don’t see a return in sales.

The senator for the tiny state of Vermont said both he and Donald Trump had addressed a large group of American workers left behind by the global economy and forgotten by the Democratic Party.

But why, if Sanders had identified the issues of concern to voters, could he not convince more of them to support him in the Democratic primaries?

Sanders’ hopes of winning the presidency in 2016 came to an end almost a year ago but he hasn’t lost hope of success for progressives in the United States. Speaking, on the Saturday before the UK went to the polls, he outlined steps Democrats are taking in America, from legislating for a $15 an hour minimum wage (around £11), to fighting Trump’s healthcare proposals.

But crucial to the platform Sanders believes his presidential campaign has given those taking forward the issues he raised, and proposing similar solutions, was him taking on the Democratic Party establishment. Though the establishment eventually won the primaries we all know its candidate Hilary Clinton didn’t win the presidency.

Sanders said he accepted Trump had won the election but said: “It’s not so much Trump won it’s more the Democratic Party lost the election. The Democratic Party over years forgot all those people working longer hours for lower wages. In America half of those approaching retirement age are doing so with nothing in the bank. A single mother on $30,000 (£23,000) cannot afford $10,000 childcare. Trump said to those people ‘I will stand with you’.”

Trump had, said Sanders, told the people the Democrats had forgotten about he was a different kind of Republican and would stand with them. In reality, Sanders said, Trump is cutting health care for working people and cutting tax for the richest: “He takes from the poor and gives to the very rich. Robin Hood in reverse.”

Challenging the establishment allowed Sanders to talk about the issue he feels has been ignored in America, and elsewhere, wealth inequality.

Sanders said he “applauded” Corbyn for also addressing the huge disparities in income levels between working people and the country’s wealthiest and said the Labour leader’s grassroots reform of his party was similar to how he has sought to realign the Democratic Party with ordinary people.

The Democrats, who he said in nine years have lost almost one thousand seats in state capitals across America, has been dependant on “Wall Street and the drug companies”.

To applause Sanders said: “We must be on the side of working people and prepared to take on the billionaire class and corporate interests.”

But he was reserved in his support for Corbyn. He made clear that support was in “two respects”; his reform of the Labour Party in challenging its establishment, which he said was similar to his own battles with the Democrats, and his willingness to address wealth inequality.

But when a man in the crowd shouted “vote for Jeremy Corbyn” in response to a teenage girl who wanted to know what action she could take to tackle the issues Sanders had raised, he said: “I myself do not get involved in British politics.”

Perhaps that was a clearer answer to an earlier question on whether Sanders would run for the presidency again, to which he said it was “too early to say”.

But on the point about what the girl could do Sanders’ answer could have been written by the Labour leader: “The truth is when people come together they can win. They’ve got the money we’ve got the people.”

Corbyn’s original campaign for the Labour leadership started just as Sanders’ primary campaign was gathering momentum in summer 2015. Labour’s electoral defeat, which senior party members and conventional thinking put down to Ed Miliband’s programme being ‘too left wing’, opened the door for Corbyn. Party members were willing to try something different and knew themselves far from being ‘too left wing’ Miliband’s approach had been restrained by caution.

Corbyn, like Sanders, was a veteran figure, known for staying true to his core beliefs, and an unlikely leader of a youth driven movement. Both sought to win by empowering and enthusing the membership – and then repeating that among the general public.

Corbyn didn’t fear building a campaign and programme for government on his socialist principles

Much of what Sanders had to say at Hay I’d already heard from Corbyn during that original 2015 campaign run. But even back then, just months after the Conservatives had been elected with an unexpected majority, Corbyn seemed to have more enthusiasm for the fight.

He took his campaign on the road, and at every rally thousands of people, could see and hear a political leader offering small, practical changes which they could buy into and during the campaign, and again in summer 2016 when Corbyn was challenged for the leadership, party membership swelled to some half a million people.

The political establishment, and the media which has become a part of that establishment, were at best sceptical and many hostile but Corbyn was able to ride the storm. Corbyn was back on the campaign stump once PM Theresa May called an election in April and while the media remained sceptical as the size of the rallies grew they acknowledged the Labour leader was running a campaign like no other in modern British politics.

Though Sanders’ analysis of Trump’s presidency and economic inequality in America seemed a little downcast, in contrast to how Corbyn has tackled similar issues, it may be because the US politician knew there were no votes for him in the giant tent in a field in Wales and as such had no reason to try to inspire. But Sanders’ message, the same that Corbyn is putting into practice, is that small actions and little people standing together can make big changes.


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