The neo-liberals austerity agenda is finally coming under some scrutiny as polling across Europe has seen the pendulum swing back to the left. Elections in Greece, France, and Germany and opinion polling elsewhere have shown left advances – though not uniformly for the ‘official’ parties of social democracy. Some of them have benefited by attacking spending cuts, whilst elsewhere it has been parties to their left who have won increased support.
But public opinion everywhere is hostile to the impact of spending cuts on people’s livelihoods and that anger is being directed at incumbent governments. Candidates who have most strongly condemned austerity have benefited most.
In Greece, this has meant Labour’s governing sister party PASOK, responsible for implementing the so-called Memorandum from the troika of the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF, has reaped the rewards of savage cuts ripping apart the country’s social fabric. With measures including public sector workers facing 50% wage cuts and food queues becoming a regular sight, voters exacted revenge by cutting the two main parties down to size. Where PASOK and the conservative New Democracy regularly receive 80% of the vote between them, that was slashed to just 32% in the Parliamentary election last week. Some of the right-wing vote has gone to the openly fascist Golden Dawn, but it is parties to the left who have benefited most, Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) on 16.8%, the Communists (KKE) on 8.5% and the Democratic Left (Dimar) on 6.1%.
Syriza, under the astute leadership of Alexis Tsipras, has since emerged as the most credible political force. It has been prepared to negotiate with all parties (other than the fascists) to seek a coalition government, but has resolutely stuck to the terms of its five points, notably including ‘cancellation of all impending measures that will impoverish Greeks further’ – requiring a renegotiation of the bailout. As a result, Syriza has been the largest party in two polls carried out since the election, with one putting them on 27.7%.
But elsewhere, the message is the same. Hollande won the French presidential election making a ferocious assault on austerity, declaring, ‘Our real adversary has no name, no face, no party, it will never be a candidate, even though it governs… it’s the world of finance’, at his campaign launch and pledging to renegotiate the EU fiscal treaty to focus on growth rather than austerity. Throughout the campaign, he faced pressure from the left by the insurgent Front de Gauche, combining the Communist Party and the Left Party – a split from the Socialist Party led by the charismatic Jean-Luc Melenchon. In the first round, Melenchon polled 11.1%.
In Germany, the Social Democrats have advanced in both Schleswig-Holstein and the far more significant North-Rhine Westphalia. In the most recent election, the SDP came from behind to take 39% to the CDU’s 26%. In Holland, it is the Socialist Party, to the left of the Labour Party, which opinion polls now predict could actually be the largest party in the next parliament.
What does this mean for Labour here in Britain?
We clearly won the recent elections. 38% nationwide is a decent recovery from the depths we plumbed at the end of the Blair era and under Gordon Brown. But in France voter turnout was 80%, in Greece 65% and North-Rhine Westphalia 60%. Francois Hollande and Jean-Luc Melenchon addressed crowds of up to 100,000 on occasions. Here in the UK turnout was 32% and there is no chance of a political rally on anything like the same scale as was seen in the French Presidential election.
While the Coalition parties are becoming more unpopular, and a section of voters defaulting back to Labour in hard times, there is still little enthusiasm for politics. Whilst we turned out enough voters to win the day on a low turnout, we can’t be sure that will translate into winning back the lost millions to wina general election.
Miliband has yet to deliver a message to energise the left and revitalise the political scene in the way Tsipras and both Hollande and Melenchon have. He is doing a steady job, but the evidence is a stronger attack on Tory austerity and a positive economic alternative for growth, with a more ambitious and radical version of the five point plan, would reap greater rewards.