What we can learn from Syriza’s big mistake

16th July, 2015 9:32 am

Imagine the scenario. On one side there is a small, plucky army full of enthusiasm and courage. Facing them is a much larger army that holds far more powerful weapons. The smaller side has no chance in a straight fight.

Tsipras Syriza

For the smaller, plucky army there are two broad choices on offer (everything else is a variation of the two):
a) fire up and rally your own side by painting the others as villains and run into battle
b) sow discord amongst your opponents by embracing some of them and dividing them.

This is pretty much the scenario that Syriza faced when they were elected by the Greeks last year. And like most of the modern left, they chose the first strategy: to rally their own side against the Germans and the rest of Europe. Unsurprisingly, Germany and other fiscally-conservative Eurozone nations got peeved and forced Tspiras into a humiliating climbdown by sticking to their (more powerful) guns.

This doesn’t mean my sympathies lie with Germany and the IMF. They wrongly prescribed Greece to go through crippling austerity when its economy was weak, deepening the crisis and making everything worse. It’s clear that they don’t have Greek interests at heart and have poisoned the spirit of the Eurozone. They should have ignored public opinion at home and focused on a deal that made economic sense and worked for Greeks, so the Eurozone prospered. Instead they chose vindictiveness.

But that doesn’t let Syriza off the hook. Their job was to come up with a strategy to get their way and win the best deal for Greeks. Faced with a far more powerful opponent and a weak side, they should have instead gone on a charm offensive around Eurozone countries, especially Germany, to persuade them of their intentions. They should have sounded fiscally prudent, like they were also anxious to to get the Eurozone out of its crisis as quickly as possible.

In other words, they should have created confusion and division among the ranks of their opponents. Winning the argument in theory is no good if you’re going to lose the war anyway. Syriza’s actions and words (accusing its money-lenders of terrorism) only strengthened the resolve of their more powerful opponents, making them intent on forcing the Greek government to eat their words.

Thankfully, it turns out Spain’s Podemos have been paying attention. Their head of economic policy, in an interview this week, distanced himself from Syriza: “Podemos and SYRIZA have different economic approaches,” he said, insisting that unlike Greece, “Spain at this time has enough room” to apply pro-growth policies and to reduce the budget deficit.

If Podemos wants to win, and wants an easier ride from its creditors for the sake of Spanish voters, it has to split its opponents who view them as dangerous radicals. They need to win the war, not just engage in futile posturing that brings defeat.

Syriza thought they had won when they were elected by the people of Greece. But the real power on economic affairs, especially within the Eurozone, lied not with the Greek people but the Germans. They are the ones it should have courted after.

There’s an obvious lesson for the British left here too. The Syriza strategy makes people feel courageous and principled. But that strategy also always leads to defeat because the enemy is far more powerful. They control the money, the airwaves, infrastructure and the government. We can keep repeating this experiment over and over again, by opposing the Conservatives with every fibre of our being, but the end result will be the same if the strategy is the same: defeat.

The only way to win isn’t principled resistance, it’s to break down your enemies by splitting them. Divide and Conquer.

Maybe Syriza, and the British left, should take more heed of their ally Pablo Iglesias of Podemos, when he pointed out: “politics has nothing to do with being right, politics is about succeeding.”

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