Election 2016

Tony Blair Admits He Is Baffled by Rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn

Former U.K. prime minister likens U.S. presidential candidate to Labour leader and says he struggles to grasp their popularity given ‘the question of electability.’

Tony Blair has said he is struggling to understand the appeal of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn because both are hampered by “the question of electability”.

The former British prime minister, a supporter of Hillary Clinton, admitted that he is finding it hard to grasp popular movements in both Britain and the US favouring mavericks who will “rattle the cage” and which reflect a loss of faith in the progressive centre.

In a joint interview with the Guardian and the Financial Times in Washington, he emphasised that Americans must make their own decision but made clear his scepticism about Sanders, the leftwing senator whose challenge to wealthy elites has energised young supporters.

“It’s very similar to the pitch of Jeremy Corbyn,” Blair said. “Free tuition fees: well, that’s great, but someone’s going to have pay for it. An end to war, but there are wars.”

The key question, he added, is finding a position “that can get the support to win in order that you can do things for the people that desperately need help”.

Corbyn and Sanders have previously earned comparisons as outsiders taking on entrenched party establishments with grassroots support. Corbyn was initially viewed as fringe candidate for the Labour leadership but gained trade union backing and won in a landslide last year. Sanders entered the Democratic race as an apparent no-hoper but trounced Clinton in the New Hampshire primary with the help of digital activism and fundraising, though he remains the underdog as the race continues.

 

Blair, speaking in Washington after the launch of a commission on countering violent extremism at theCenter for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), reflected: “I think there is a combination of factors behind these movements which are happening both sides of the Atlantic. Part of it is the flatlining of lower and middle income people, the flatlining in living standards for those people, which is very frustrating. It’s partly an anger for sure at the elites, a desire to choose people who are going to rattle the cage.

“And it’s partly also about social media, which is itself a revolutionary phenomenon which can generate an enormous wave of enthusiasm at speed. When I first started in politics, these things took so long to build up momentum; your decision points were well before that moment was achieved. But it’s also a loss of faith in that strong, centrist progressive position and we’ve got to recover that.”

Blair won a record three general elections as Labour leader aftermoving the party to the centre in the 1990s in an echo of Bill Clinton’s rebranding of his party as the New Democrats. But some commentators regard Corbyn’s ascent and the defeat of “Blairite” candidates as a repudiation of his legacy and return to old Labour values.

The former prime minister admitted: “One of the strangest things about politics at the moment – and I really mean it when I say I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now, which is an odd thing to say, having spent my life in it – is when you put the question of electability as a factor in your decision to nominate a leader, it’s how small the numbers are that this is the decisive factor. That sounds curious to me.

“Surely it should be a major factor because if this is not about you, but it’s about the people you want to serve, then selecting someone who is electable is really important because otherwise you can’t help people; you’re powerless.”

Supporters of Hillary Clinton have argued she is the pragmatic choice for Democrats this year, standing a better chance than Sanders of wooing independent voters away from Republicans in the presidential election. Blair added: “It’s up to Democrats who they decide they want to elect but, five months on from the nomination of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, you’ve got the published polls. We [Labour] should be significantly ahead. The last poll I saw, we were quite significantly behind.

“I think it’s also important that we have practical policy. But this is where I think the centre ground’s got a lot of thinking to do – we’ve got a lot of challenges, because we have lost a radical cutting edge that we need to regain. Otherwise, we are not able to lead and stimulate and attract in the way that we need.”

Asked if he expects Clinton to win the presidency, he replied: “I think Hillary’s a very strong, capable person and I’m a supporter of hers, but who the Americans choose is up to them. It’s not wise to get into that.”

Blair also declined to comment directly on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s pledge to ban Muslims from entering the US as a measure to combat terrorism. But he said: “It’s important that people are aware of the fact that we need allies within Islam to fight this and those allies will be in the majority Muslim, so it’s not sensible to alienate them from the outset."

The 62-year-old will co-chair the CSIS commission with Leon Panetta, former US defense secretary and ex-director of the CIA, with a brief to produce a clear strategy for tackling violent extremism, including an understanding of its root causes in Islamist communities.

“We’re looking at the deeper ideological questions,” he explained. “Those questions, I think, will take a generation to deal with and will go beyond not just this presidency but the next presidency, but the sooner we start the better.

“My focus particularly will be around education systems, because I think when you examine the education systems in many of these countries, they are educating young people to a very narrow view of religion, to the exclusion of science and technology and that is damaging their political health for the future.”

Turning closer to home, Blair warned against the growing risk of Britain departing the European Union, a move opposed by Prime Minister David Cameron but now endorsed by London mayor Boris Johnson.

“The case for Britain staying in Europe is overwhelming because leaving the largest commercial market in the world, the biggest single political union in the world right on our doorstep, in the 21st century would be a huge leap of uncertainty and difficulty,” he said.

“In addition, I think there is a very strong argument that over time people will internalise which is that this isn’t just about the UK and Europe, it’s about the UK, because if the UK voted to leave Europe it would completely change the debate around Scottish independence. Therefore you actually are talking about the future of Britain, you’re not just talking about the future of Britain in Europe.”

 

David Smith is the Guardian's Washington correspondent.

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