(Note: This interview was conducted before Hillary Clinton secured enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination)
While he may be better known as the elder brother of Bernie, Larry Sanders is no stranger to political activism himself. Growing up in Brooklyn with parents who were, in his words, archetypal of the post-war, New York Jewish radical movement, he was exposed to socialist ideas. After moving to the United Kingdom in 1969, Sanders became a university lecturer before getting involved with the Labour Party during the 1980s. However, he left the party for the Greens in 2001, feeling Blair had moved Labour too far to the right. Since this time, he has stood for election as an Oxford MP twice, and has this year become the Green’s Health and Social Care spokesperson. I got the opportunity to speak to Sanders about the NHS, the Green Party’s prospects and the symbolism of his brother’s bid for the US presidency.
Hearing Sanders speak for the first time was quite a shock, as he has the same no-nonsense Brooklyn accent as his brother. This accent tends to make the speaker sound perpetually irritated, which set the scene perfectly for my first question: “What is wrong with the NHS?”
“Oh well the situation is pretty dire.” Came the instant reply. “We have steadily progressing, probably intensifying, privatisation. The NHS is being required to tender virtually every new contract – and basically everything now is by contract. So when each contract expires – normally every three to five years – there is the whole tendering process, which is very expensive and very time-consuming.” He continues: “It’s very good for the private companies, which are essentially tendering companies – they don’t do healthcare, they do tendering – and these companies are winning over a third of the new contracts.” In Sanders’ view, the reason this is so destructive is that it “fragments the service”. He explains, “It’s not just one company winning these tenders, but dozens of companies. So in an area which might have had one or a couple of NHS trusts to co-ordinate there may now be seven, eight or ten private companies. The profits are all taken out from a single care pot, so the fragmentation is expensive and degrades the service.”
Sanders is clearly very well-informed about the state of the NHS, and quickly moves on to underfunding. “The NHS estimated that it would have a £30 billion shortfall within the next 3-4 years, and they [the Tories] said that they would put £8 billion in, and find £22 billion in efficiency savings. Nobody thinks that those efficiency savings are anything but cuts.” He explains. What makes this worse, Sanders argues is that, “the NHS had already started from a very low position compared to other industrial countries: we have fewer GPs per capita, fewer nurses, fewer hospital beds, and you will not talk to any health practitioner who doesn’t tell you the difficult things they are facing because of these shortfalls in funding.”
Moving on from the problems the NHS is facing, we start talking about the root causes of these issues. “Part of the background to all of this is the Private Finance Initiative.” Sanders explains. “In the past the norm was for a government to borrow – at a very good rate because governments have a very good credit risk – but with PFI the borrowing was done by private companies who then built and owned the facilities and rented them back out to the government and the NHS.” Sanders laments, “It looks to be something like 4-6x as much repayment as there would have been under normal government borrowing. There are all sorts of estimates as it’s hard to get decent statistics, but it’s probably around £50-60 billion extra debt that PFI has added.” Sanders notes that while the Conservatives set the scene for PFI, it really exploded under the New Labour government, and this played a role in his defection.
“We have steadily progressing, probably intensifying, privatisation”
So far, so gloomy. As I mentioned, Larry Sanders is originally from the US, so I wanted to get his opinion on what makes our system unique, and in what ways it is preferable to the American system.
“Well, where to start with that,” he laughs. “Perhaps the first thing to note is that a private, profit-making system is incredibly expensive.” Sanders is very keen to dispel the myth that a nationalised system of healthcare is unsustainable and unwieldy. “The American system costs about 2.5x per capita what the British system costs and actual taxpayer money per capita spent on healthcare is higher in the US than it is in this country.” He thinks that this fact makes an interesting point about the American temperament. “I see a lot of people in the UK who think there’s something mean or stingy about in the Americans,” he says. “In fact, it’s very odd but I think in this sense they are more generous than British taxpayers would be.” Intrigued, I press him to elaborate. “Well, despite the fact that most Americans pay enormous amounts for their private health insurance they are willing to pay taxes to help poor people with Medicaid and elderly people with Medicare, which are extremely expensive,” he explains. It’s a good point, and forms part of what Sanders perceives as a mischaracterisation of the American public.
Leaving healthcare behind, I press Sanders on the Green Party’s recent performance in local elections. Despite the party trying to spin a so-called ‘Green Surge’ last year, they actually went backwards in this year’s local elections, losing three seats and being beaten into fifth place behind UKIP. I put this to Sanders and asked him what he thought and how the party could improve. ‘I wish I knew,’ replies Sanders. He has clearly thought on this issue a lot himself, and is troubled by it. “It was a mixed night. We did quite well in London and we did well in Scotland, but in Oxford we lost two seats,” he continues. “I think we lost in Oxford because of the Corbyn effect. A lot of people who’ve come to the Green Party in despair of Labour over the years have thought that the Corbyn election means that the Labour Party is different – my view is that we don’t yet know if this is true, and it certainly hasn’t been so far. But I think that’s what happened in Oxford and it was replicated in a number of other places.” As for improving the party’s prospects, Sanders thinks focusing on the issues facing the NHS and what the other parties mean for it is key, and he aims to be a big part in getting this across.
Our interview drew to a close by discussing the elephant in the room – Larry’s brother. I asked Larry that while it seemed like Hillary has the race against Bernie – whom he endearingly refers to as Bernard – sewn up, what the high levels of support his brother had garnered meant for American politics. His response is a mixture of cynicism about the American ‘establishment’ tempered with faith in the American people and mass politics.
“The American political situation has changed”
“Well, first of all you’re right that it’s likely that Hillary will win but it’s not 100% certain. There is a small chance that Bernard will come through – essentially because he does so much better in polling against Trump. So it may well be that enough Democratic superdelegates would prefer to win the election than retain control of the party – but typically politicians prefer control of their parties, so I’m not too hopeful,” he observes. “As for what it means,” he continues, “first of all it means that a lot of nonsense about how American voters are totally conservative and would never dream of voting for a socialist is just that – nonsense. Given a good candidate – even one who is as scandalously underreported as Bernard – people will vote for them.”
Sanders is very opimistic about the levels of support his brother has been able to drum up and predicts that it has changed politics for good, and that we have certainly not seen the end of Bernie. “I think the fact that so many people are supporting Bernard, and in particular younger people, shows that something has happened which is unlikely to be rolled back. The American political situation has changed, and I think Bernard himself will continue to be a leader in the next few years even if he doesn’t get the nomination. I think he will contest the leadership of the Democratic party at every level and will contest for different policies in the Democratic party and there’s a good chance that he and the people who come after him and around him will succeed.”