The Kennedy conundrum

On the eve of the Liberal Democrats’ most keenly anticipated conference since they were founded in

On Monday 6 September, a delegation of senior MPs and peers filed into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on King Charles Street. Hosting the meeting was the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who had taken time out from his schedule to discuss the coalition government's foreign policy, despite days of rampant speculation about his private life and political judgement. Hague was persuasive. "He was very impressive and in absolute control of his brief," says a peer who was there. What was notable about the occasion was that all the parliamentarians present were Liberal Democrats.

Across Whitehall, similar meetings are being held at which Lib Dem backbenchers are being hugged close by Conservative ministers - especially the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who has been impressing sceptics with his plans for "free schools", often in one-on-one meetings. The co-chairs of various Lib Dem policy teams have been invited to attend the regular "forward looks" that Tory cabinet ministers hold with departmental colleagues.

These charm offensives reflect the Tory high command's keenness to make the coalition gel for the lifetime of this parliament and, in the words of one senior Lib Dem to whom we spoke, David Cameron's desire to use the smaller party "as a counterweight to the Tory right".

Some coalition outriders want it to go further. Nick Boles, the "modernising" Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford who is a close friend and ally of the Prime Minister, went public on 13 September with a proposal that would bind the two parties in an electoral pact by the end of the year. Boles, a former member of Cameron's "implementation unit" before the general election, said that the coalition partners should give each other a free run in the seats they hold.

Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader, was quick to reject the idea, saying that his party would "take on all comers" at the next election, including the Conservatives. But, for some senior Lib Dems, the proposal may seem attractive in the long run, as it would secure the Lib Dems' new-found role as a credible, centrist party of government.

Others on the dormant left of the party, however, see it as a "trap" - a plan to destroy the Lib Dems as an independent political force and subsume them into the Cameron-led Conservative Party. "I would oppose such a move with every fibre of my body," says David Hall-Matthews, a former parliamentary candidate and chair of the influential centre-left pressure group the Social Liberal Forum, founded by Lib Dem members and campaigners.

Gathering storm

According to a recent ComRes poll, the party has lost the support of almost four in ten of the people who voted for it on 6 May, with more than one in five people who backed the Lib Dems at the general election telling pollsters that they would now vote Labour. Overall, the Lib Dems' poll rating has shrunk to 12 per cent, down from 23 per cent at the election.

Meanwhile, even among Lib Dem activists, dissatisfaction is on the rise. A recent survey of nearly 600 party members showed that net support for the coalition fell to 45 per cent in August from 57 per cent in July.

Between 18 and 22 September, the Lib Dems are gathering in Liverpool for the most eagerly awaited conference in the party's 22-year history. More than 7,000 delegates are travelling to the event - far eclipsing the usual attendance of 6,000; the number of journalists attending has leapt by 500 to 1,500. It is the "biggest Lib Dem conference ever", in the words of the Liberal Democrat Voice blog.

As MPs, members and activists gather in Liverpool, there is no sign yet of serious unrest. We are four months in to the coalition and not a single MP wants to break with the Tories. Take Bob Russell, Lib Dem MP for Colchester and a well-known backbench rebel. On 13 September, he "dragged", in his own words, the Chancellor, George Osborne, to the Commons to explain his latest round of benefit cuts, accusing him of being "unethical" and "immature". But Russell now tells us: "The coalition will last the full five years. Of course it will."

Yet, beneath the surface, there is growing uncertainty about the party's electoral future and about what one MP describes as "an identity crisis".
"The mood is a mixture of excitement and growing anxiety," agrees Hall-Matthews. "I wouldn't expect there to be outright hostility towards theleadership but people will be coming to the conference with questions about how we retain our distinctiveness as a party while working in the coalition."

Another senior Liberal Democrat on the left of the party says he is "very uncomfortable with the rhetoric from the party leadership. Nick Clegg seems to think that this is a coalition built on ideological coherence, rather than just two parties working together." He adds: "I do believe in consensus politics, but I don't want to pretend there is ideological coherence with the Tories and it doesn't electorally help us to pretend it does."

Perhaps it is not a pretence. "You have no idea of the extent of the behind-the-scenes bonding that has gone on between Nick and Cameron, as well as Nick and other Tories like Osborne," says a well-connected Lib Dem frontbencher. "They've all been slagging off Labour together like there's no tomorrow."

It's a long way from Charles Kennedy's leadership of the party, when the Lib Dems were much closer to Labour. Though a figurehead for the party's left, Kennedy himself is refusing to stoke any revolts. He has denied claims that he would consider defecting to Labour, despite making it clear that he opposed his party's alliance with the Tories. But friends of Kennedy say that he does see a future role for himself in the party, if not as leader for a second time, then, at least, in a very senior role on the Lib Dem front bench.

“When Charles went, our support haemorrhaged," says a leading Lib Dem peer. "It took us years of careful work to get that back. Now we've thrown it all away again. We may have to call on Charles again one day."

Intriguingly, similar sentiments were expressed at a private 80th birthday party for Shirley Williams on 8 September at the Savile Club in London. The gathering served as a reunion of the old Social Democratic Party (SDP). Bill Rodgers, who, along with Williams, was one of the original Gang of Four that broke from Labour to create the SDP, had planned the party. Tom McNally, a minister in the Department of Justice, was the sole representative from the coalition. No cabinet ministers were present, least of all the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg.

At the party, Kennedy gave a characteristically witty speech about Williams before leaving to vote in the Commons. After he left, Williams paid fulsome tribute to the popular former leader and argued that he still had a "big future role" to play in the party. "It was very striking how effusive Shirley was about Charles - and not just about his past record but the role she thought he might play in the coming months," said one of the guests.

The reckoning

A rising star to look out for at the party's conference is the backbencher Tim Farron. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale lost out to Simon Hughes for the post of deputy leader but is preparing to challenge for another influential job: that of party president. Lib Dem insiders tell us Farron is the clear favourite - which might worry Clegg: he has been one of the most vocal Lib Dem critics of the coalition, condemning the Conservatives as possessing a "toxic brand" that is being given "cover" by the Lib Dems. He is also supporting a contentious conference motion that calls on Lib Dem ministers to look into the "viability and practicalities of increasing taxation on wealth - including land values".

But the most controversial issue at the conference and beyond is likely to be university tuition fees. Before the election, 55 out of the 57 Lib Dem MPs signed a pledge to vote against any increase in fees. In July, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, floated the idea of instituting a graduate tax in a speech at South Bank University in London. But the review into higher-education funding, chaired by the former BP chief executive Lord (John) Browne and scheduled to publish its findings on 11 October, is expected to reject a graduate tax and instead propose a rise in fees to around £7,000.

Despite the terse statement in the coalition agreement that "arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote" on proposals from Browne with which they disagree, numerous backbenchers - including the former leader Menzies Campbell - have let it be known that they plan to rebel if the party performs a U-turn in government on fees. Insiders suggest the number could easily be a majority of the parliamentary party. "If Browne recommends lifting or raising the cap on fees, I expect there'll be blood on the carpet," says a senior party source.

Meanwhile, MPs and activists alike are beginning to ask searching questions of the party leadership. On what platform, for example, will the Liberal Democrats fight the next election? Hughes has said they will fight "in every seat", but on what basis will they stand against their Conservative allies? Come 2015, will Clegg be able to challenge or confront Cameron in the television debates as he did so forcefully in spring this year?

When we asked a senior Lib Dem frontbencher whether Clegg could "attack" Cameron at the next election, he replied: "Of course not. How could he?"

So, can Clegg carry his anxious party with him through to 2015? On Monday in Liverpool, he may be greeted as a hero by the faithful, still euphoric over the Lib Dems' entry into government, but the real reckoning will come in 2011. Not only will the effect of the coalition's public spending cuts have set in, but the party is preparing for losses at the local elections in May. To compound matters, party members are also having to come to terms with the likelihood that they will lose the "glittering prize" from a referendum on electoral reform.

“I hate this government," a senior Lib Dem peer was overheard to remark recently while walking out of the House of Lords chamber. For now, however, such mutterings are kept quiet. Next year could be very different.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror