I don’t share the unalloyed delight about Syriza’s victory in Greece, and the sense that there are lessons in this for Labour, that many Labour colleagues do.
I’m delighted that the right has lost in Greece – both the conventional equivalent of our Tory Party, New Democracy, and the fascist Golden Dawn.
I hope that the economic and social nightmare the Greek people have endured will be brought to an end.
The economic medicine the international community demanded Greece swallow was completely inhumane in its harshness and severity, stripping away Greek citizens’ rights to basic dignity, work, a social and health safety net and hope for the future. It has failed to work economically – the Greek economy has continued to shrink rather than recovering. It is right that the Greek people have said “enough”, there has to be a better way than this extreme austerity approach.
But I am not sure everyone in Syriza shares Labour’s democratic socialist values. Syriza is a rag-tag and bobtail unstable coalition formed from the merger of 17 different political parties. It includes social democratic, green left and even reform Euro-Communist elements who we might consider to share our democratic socialist ideology and values. But it also includes Trotskyists (such as the “Anticapitalist Revolutionary Group”, “Internationalist Workers Left”, “Red” and “Communist Platform of Syriza”), Communists (KEDA) and Maoists (“The Communist Organisation of Greece”). Despite its overall stance of being pro-EU but anti-austerity, Syriza includes Euro-sceptics like DIKKI (Democratic Social Movement).
I don’t believe in “no enemies to the left” so I am queasy about the arrival in government in an EU state of groups whose ideological commitment is to revolution and a dictatorship of the proletariat, not parliamentary democracy. Revolutionary groups which believe that it isn’t possible to ameliorate the conditions of working people under capitalism, but you should cynically make impossible “transitional” demands and then seek to provoke a revolutionary situation when these demands can’t be met, may have their own motives for suggesting Greece can expect German taxpayers to subsidise another country’s economic recovery.
I believe Alexis Tsipras is serious about government. Whether all his MPs have the intention of taking responsible decisions remains to be seen.
Nor can I greet with pleasure or equanimity the demise of Labour’s sister party PASOK and the failure to take-off of To Kinima (the Movement of Democratic Socialists), founded by Socialist International President George Papandreou. One analysis is that the Greek centre-left deserved their fate for trying to implement austerity in return for the EU bailout. Another is that they have unfairly paid the price for trying to do the right thing to save the economy even though it was electorally suicidal. It doesn’t really matter – either way they are down at rock bottom. But it has to be a tragedy, not a grounds for celebration, that a once vibrant sister party of ours that regularly scored over 40% of the vote and was one of the strongest components of the Party of European Socialists, is now languishing on 4.7% and has been replaced as the voice of the Greek left by forces that don’t necessarily see us as their comrades.
I don’t think there is a lesson here for Labour.
We were right to argue that the UK economic situation did not parallel Greece’s when the Tories and Lib Dems used fear of a Greek-style scenario to argue for their version of austerity. It would be equally ridiculous to try to draw parallels between Greece today and the UK, or between PASOK’s position and the Labour Party’s.
Austerity in the UK has been bad enough, with key local government services and facilities cut, the health service budget under pressure, Food Banks, the Bedroom Tax and years of unnecessarily high unemployment. But it pales into insignificance compared to the social destruction wrecked in Greece, where general unemployment stands at 26%, more than half of young people are unemployed, there is mass emigration, the health and education systems have been butchered and pensioners and former members of the middle class are resorting to soup kitchens. Our British Tories are bad, but they also have a sense of electoral self-preservation – they make sure enough people stay prosperous to get themselves re-elected, they look after OAPs because they vote in high numbers, and at least until now they have not dared to directly attack a popular institution like the NHS, preferring to subtly undermine it.
Nor is Labour in a similar situation to PASOK. We face threats to our left from the SNP and Greens, and the right from UKIP, but these are more to with a culture of populist anti-politics and specific political issues about Scotland, Europe and immigration, than about a left critique of our economic strategy.
We didn’t join the Euro, thanks to the foresight of Gordon Brown and Ed Balls, so our economic strategy has far more domestic control than Greece’s and we don’t have to accept austerity measures imposed from Berlin. Nor do we have the specific structural issues Greece has around mass tax-avoidance.
This, and a degree of basic political and economic sense, and the fact we had been there before in 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald’s austerity response to the recession split the party, meant that in government Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling didn’t adopt an austerity approach to the crisis. Instead Labour took a broadly Keynesian approach to the crisis and increased public spending to reflate the economy. According to the IFS “between 1997 and 2007 – prior to the financial crisis – the UK had the 2nd largest increase in spending as a share of national income out of 28 industrial countries for which we have comparable data. Over the period from 1997 to 2010 – including the crisis – the UK had the largest increase. This moved the UK from having the 22nd largest proportion of national income spent publically in 1997 to having the 6th largest proportion spent publically in 2010.” Not only did this save many jobs by replacing lost private sector ones with public ones, it meant that we got vastly improved public services, including permanent capital investment in infrastructure, and it worked economically because the UK was growing by the time Labour lost office.
And it is insulting to describe Labour’s current economic policy as “austerity” or even “austerity-lite”. The gap in economic policy terms between Labour and the Tories, and the real choice facing voters, is as big as it has been at any time for 30 years – an estimated £50 billion. This is because whilst Labour will balance the books, it will exclude £27 billion in state infrastructure spending from this calculation, whilst the Tories plan an unnecessary £23 billion in extra cuts in order to produce a surplus.
So let’s hope the Greek election will lead to a new economic approach there that gives a better future to the Greek people. We should stand in solidarity with the people of Greece. But let’s not be naive about all the forces behind Syriza or gloat over the demise of PASOK, and let’s end the stupid analogies with the UK and loose talk about “PASOKification” of Labour when we have a proud record of fighting austerity and bold policies that will rebuild the British economy.