Labour’s election campaign received rousing support from American progressive champion Bernie Sanders on Thursday at the start of a three-day UK speaking tour which he hopes will help galvanise the British left.
Drawing parallels between anti-establishment anger at both ends of the political spectrum in Britain and the US, the former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination also applauded Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to reshape the Labour party.
“What has impressed me – and there is a real similarity between what he has done and what I did – is he has taken on the establishment of the Labour party, he has gone to the grassroots and he has tried to transform that party … and that is exactly what I am trying to do,” said Sanders.
“I am also impressed by his willingness to talk about class issues,” he added during a sold-out speech at the Brighton festival. “Too many people run away from the grotesque levels of income and wealth inequality that exist in the United States, the UK and all over the world. We will never make the kind of changes we need unless we take on the levels of inequality that exist.”
The comments are the most extensive yet linking the two movements, though Sanders stressed that his remarks should not been seen as a formal endorsement, arguing that this would be inappropriate behaviour for a foreign politician at this time.
“I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” said the Vermont senator. “I think he is doing quite well. Nor do the people of the UK need my advice on who to vote for. I think they understand. But I have been very impressed by the campaign that he has been running and I wish him the very best.”
Sanders, whose narrowly failed bid for the Democratic nomination helped electrify the 2016 race for the White House, was rapturously received by the Brighton crowd, who warmed to his arguments that Britain and America both needed radical political reform to tackle a host of shared challenges.
“These problems are not unique to the US,” he said. “Globalisation has left far too many people behind. Workers all over the world are seeing a decline in their standard of living. Unfettered free trade has allowed multinational corporations to enjoy huge profits and make the very rich even richer while workers are sucked into a race for the bottom.”
“These are not American issues, or British issues – these are international issues,” Sanders went on. “Our job is to create economies that work for working people – that uplift the poor, not make the very richest almost unbelievably rich while leaving everyone else behind. This is a global issue and we must address it.”
The senator, who stepped off the plane only shortly before speaking, did not address UK policy issues directly, sticking mainly to the themes of his 2016 campaign speech, but he inadvertently struck a chord with many in the room by describing the problems of students in the US.
“How insane is it that we are telling people that they are going to have pay off debt for decades for the crime of getting an education?” said Sanders, without referencing Labour’s own plan to abolish tuition fees.
As he spoke, news of Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate change agreement was relayed to the audience, something Sanders described as an “international embarrassment”. “Trump’s views do not reflect the views of the majority of the people in the United States,” he said, trying to reassure the audience.
But the senator said he saw a “lot of commonality” between the election of Trump and Britain’s Brexit referendum, which the left still needed to learn from.
“What I think Brexit was about was a lot of people who felt left behind by the global economy and their voices and their pain was not being heard,” he said. “What upset me was the Democratic party more or less ignored that reality. What Democrats have got to do is to have the courage to look at that pain.
“Trump understood that reality and spoke to that reality. Unfortunately, he lied, but that reality exists. It wasn’t so much that he won the election; it was that the Democrats lost the election.”