Tony Blair has warned Democrats in the US that nominating Bernie Sanders to face Donald Trump for the presidency would be “an enormous gamble”, risking defeat on a similar scale to that suffered by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.
The former prime minister told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria: “When I hear the rhetoric around Bernie Sanders, who by the way is obviously a very capable guy, it’s eerily familiar to anyone who’s just watched the debacle unfold in the British Labour party and our election defeat in the UK which is essentially the worst in our 120-year history.”
In December, in an election primarily centered on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, Corbyn’s Labour Party was beaten heavily by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
Reaction to Blair’s comments on social media was swift, with many pointing out that Sanders’ signature policy – universal healthcare – has been a feature of life in Britain since the setting up of the publicly funded National Health Service in 1948. Critics also point out that the British left gained support after Blair began introducing limited privatisation into the NHS.
Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont who describes himself as a democratic socialist, surged in the early stages of the Democratic primary and was a clear frontrunner after the Nevada caucuses in February.
But Joe Biden has mounted a stunning comeback, dominating the Super Tuesday primaries and subsequent contests.
Amid the growing chaos of the coronavirus outbreak and Trump’s attempts to contain it, the senator and the former vice-president will debate behind closed doors in Washington on Sunday night. The next votes will be held in Florida, Ohio, Arizona and Illinois on Tuesday.
A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sunday showed Biden way ahead with Democratic voters and performing better than Sanders in a notional race against Trump.
But the Vermont senator has said he will not drop out, aiming instead to shape the ideological outlook of the party on issues such as healthcare, student debt and the minimum wage and perhaps to surge back into contention should Biden stumble or fall.
Like establishment figures and moderates in Democratic ranks, Blair doubts the wisdom of that decision.
“I just don’t think there’s an appetite for socialist revolution,” he said. “There wasn’t in Britain, I’d be surprised if there was in the US. And so I think … if they go down that path it’s an enormous gamble.
“Put it like this: you’re essentially saying, ‘Put aside the middle ground, we’re not really going to try to reach that, instead we’re going to up the turnout and that’s exactly the strategy of Corbyn’s Labour party in the UK and it failed, drastically.”
Biden has attracted moderates, independents, suburban voters and a huge percentage of African Americans, many seemingly motivated to simply choose the candidate most likely to beat Trump in November.
Sanders has done well among the young but hopes of a surge in turnout from such voters have not borne fruit.
“That’s why I’m a skeptic about him,” Blair said.
“Now on the other hand I think what is important to recognise is that progressive politics has got two big challenges.
“First of all, my view of the populism is you’ve got to be very careful when you’re from the liberal or progressive side of politics, because if you’re not careful you tend to say that, ‘These people who are voting for Donald Trump or Brexit, they’re just irrational people, I don’t understand why they’re doing it and you’ve just got to hope this is a moment that passes.’
“No, they’re doing it for reasons, and whereas populism can exploit grievances they don’t invent them. The grievances are real.”
Blair said he knew Biden well and thought him “highly capable and decent”, but said the challenge if he did win the White House would be to effect real change while in office.
Blair also said he was “a passionate believer that if the left goes down the path of trying to fight a culture war with the right, it will lose comprehensively and it really should not do that.”