Greek election should mark upswing in opposition to austerity

It is difficult to imagine the impact of austerity in Greece from here in the UK. Aside from the stark imagery of pensioners eating from bins, students forced into prostitution and children being abandoned in increasing numbers, the statistics make for uncomfortable reading. In February The Guardian reported that planned 15% wage cuts – on top of 30% already suffered – would still not be enough for EU officials. In recent days there have been reports that staff at the Finance Ministry itself have had a 60% cut in their total pay. Unemployment is currently at 22%, while for 15-24 year olds it stands at 54% with both figures still growing. GDP has contracted by 20% since 2008.

The attacks on living standards they face are being replicated across Europe, including here in the UK, but they are on the frontline and suffering more than anyone. After repeated mass protests and waves of strike action, they shocked the European establishment on the 6th May, however, and voted against austerity and dumped the governing parties out of office.

As they go to vote this weekend, the Greek people face two starkly different choices – continuation of poverty and privatisation demanded by the EU, European Central Bank and IMF Troika via the conservative New Democracy, or Syriza’s economic plan.

Having lost the last election on the issue of austerity, New Democracy and the European establishment has sought to recast this weekend’s election and sought to establish a false debate on single currency membership and therefore force Greek people to accept the continuing attacks on their livelihoods. Seeking to blackmail them, David Cameron, said, ‘you can either vote to stay in the euro, with all the commitments you’ve made, or if you vote another way, you’re effectively voting to leave.’
Those ‘commitments’, already rejected in the last election, include wholesale privatisation of major sections of the economy along with the attacks on wages and employment.

The alternative is posed by Tsipras who, writing in the Financial Times today said, ‘The people of Greece want to replace the failed old memorandum of understanding with a ‘national plan for reconstruction and growth. He has pledged his support to the Euro, talked about the need for investment to grow the economy, and will nationalise the recapitalied banks to deliver it. Another spokesperson for Syriza has said ‘our primary target is to ease the burden on the 35 percent of households whose income hovers around or below the poverty line’.
Rather than exacting punishment whilst supposedly bailing out the Greek economy, Europe needs to back the plan proposed by Syriza. Europe needs are mechanisms that will assist different sectors of the continent’s economy in times of need. An analogy can be drawn from the US and its Federal Reserve which ensures the weaker sections of the US economy are supported – not punished.

Alexis Tsipras has been inspiring in his refusal to bend to Cameron and Merkel and with his support still growing, there is now also the suggestion that the Greek left is following him. Pasok are warming to some of his ideas, particularly with their co-ordinated call with the Democratic Left for re-negotiations of the most onerous terms of the bailout and cancelling cuts in the minimum wage they had previously implemented.

A coalition is likely but the best chance they have of them being implemented is the strongest possible vote for Syriza. As progressives, we need to offer our support in the battle that Greek working people, students and the unemployed have been thrown into. We need to challenge policies that will see finance provided only on that condition that there is a fire sale of Greek state assets and the country entrenched as a low-wage nation with ordinary people’s living standards decimated.

One concrete suggestion we should raise is for whole sections of Greek debt to be written off – just as the Jubilee Debt campaign demanded for many countries a decade ago – allowing the Greek economy to begin to grow again

Who will win on Sunday is not clear but in the last poll, Syriza was on 30% when only two years ago they only won 4%. It is clear a consistent message is winning support. The election should mark an upswing in the continent’s opposition to austerity – a Europe-wide response to a Europe-wide problem. Good luck to them.


An uncomfortable lesson for Europe’s social democratic parties

The first thing I noticed coming out of Syntagma station next to the Greek parliament was a man trying to raise money for an operation. On the pavement around him were scattered political leaflets and other remains of the many demonstrations on the streets of Athens.

On first sight, the capital appeared to be just a normal city. But as I walked through the streets I spotted hundreds of closed and boarded shops.

Those that remained open had disconsolate owners standing, arms folded, watching for anyone who checked their pace and might just be a customer.

In the poorer areas listless groups of young men hung around waiting for something – anything – to happen.

The least lucky would reserve their sleeping patch on the main roads by leaving their dog to guard a precious piece of pavement.

The parks have police watching to make sure nobody tries to pitch a place to sleep overnight.

Yet some of Athens looked normal. Tourists frequented the pavement cafes, street stalls and bars, but coaches were all but empty and the drivers despondently cleaned their vehicles to pass the time.

Greece is in the midst of austerity. It has become a laboratory for free-market economic solutions.

Only last week IMF chief Christine Lagarde calmly told the Guardian that she had little sympathy for Greece – Greeks had to pay their taxes and go through the pain.

In a delicious piece of Twitter-originated irony it has emerged that her salary is tax-exempt.

Lagarde’s arrogant judgement on the entire Greek population is echoed by David Cameron.

He told me as much two weeks ago when he replied to my plea to show some support for Greece, claiming that what the country needed was British-style fiscal policies.

The crisis of 2008 affected everyone, but Greece was among the worst-hit. And now four years on, the economy has contracted by a fifth. It shrank by 6 per cent this year and is projected the same for next.

But the Greeks are not taking things lying down, and the political landscape is changing rapidly.

On Wednesday I attended a rally in the town of Keratera, about an hour’s drive from Athens. This small rural town was formerly conservative-leaning, but all that changed when the government tried to impose a privately run refuse disposal plant for Athens there.

The plan was met with violent resistance as all environmental concerns and suggestions for alternatives were brushed aside. Locals blocked the roads and fought pitched battles until eventually the privateers were forced to retreat. The project has now been cancelled.

At a community meeting on cool post-thunderstorm evening, over 2,000 people attended to listen to Alexis Tsipras, the 37-year-old civil engineer leader of left-wing coalition Syriza.

He congratulated the locals on their success in defeating the refuse facility, and then addressed the issues facing the country.

As he elaborated, he gently reminded his audience of the changing political appetite in Greece – at his 2006 election rally in the town he attracted a mere 17 people.

Referring to the corruption of the political system, Tsipras pledged to reopen the inquiry into corruption emanating from the German company Siemens.

He was greeted by rapturous applause, and a wag in the audience shouted “toasters!” – a reference to alleged corporate gifts to ministers.

Tsipras’s quick response was that he wished that were all it was.

He then went on to describe the effects of the 700-page austerity memorandum, which contributed to the downfall of the Pasok government.

Pasok’s support collapsed after it signed off on the “agreement” earlier this year, which led to a fire-sale of state assets, privatisation of services, tearing up of collective bargaining agreements, wage cuts and pension reductions. Beyond this the health service is having trouble coping and schools are short of everything.

Pasok’s legacy can be seen in the stats – official unemployment among adults at 25 per cent, among young people it is over 50 per cent, and the number of families with no income from work now tops 600,000.

The social democratic Pasok party, which has dominated Greek politics for the past few years, approached the May general election on the basis of its “responsible” approach to the crisis – and got a sharp rebuff.

Its vote plummeted to 13 per cent – a drop of 30 percentage points.

Former Pasok MP Sofia Sakorafa described the party’s post-2009 tactics to me. George Papandreou endlessly confronted his parliamentary caucus with “take-or-leave it” threats of collapse unless European Central Bank’s (ECB) austerity package was agreed.

There was a belief among many that the deal was a pre-election fait accompli and that Papandreou would push it through.

Sakorafa, along with others, refused to accept the austerity memorandum – which MPs were given less than two days to consider – and was expelled from the party.

They now form an important part of the Syriza left coalition, and Sakarafa is now one of the most popular political figures in the country.

May’s inconclusive election results and the refusal of the left parties to implement the austerity memorandum have resulted in a caretaker government and new elections on June 17.

Opinion polls vary, but the frontrunners are Syriza and New Democracy both in the upper twenties, all others much lower and Pasok steadily losing ground. On current projections it may not even pass 10 per cent.

There is an uncomfortable lesson here for Europe’s social democratic parties such as Pasok and Spain’s PSOE that the implementation of ECB diktats attack the very fabric of working-class communities with devastating effect.

Labour initially tried to reflate the economy after the 2008 crisis but offered austerity after 2009.

The Tories now form a government so we will never know what might have been – but it shows the need for Labour and the Trades Union Congress to heed the lessons.

Greece is not a small country, far away, of which we know little, as Neville Chamberlain described Czechoslavakia on the eve of World War II. Events there are highly relevant to the here and now across Europe.

We know that implementing austerity packages destroys those who do the bankers’ bidding. So if ever there was a time for socialist ideas, restructuring and action it is now.


By Jeremy Corbyn MP

Jeremy will be providing a report back on his visit on the 18th June – see here for more info.

Article originally published by The Morning Star.


Tsipras confronts neo-liberal blackmail – vote on austerity, not euro

This weekend Europe’s neo-liberals stepped up their attempts to blackmail the Greek people into accepting the painful terms of austerity by creating a false debate on Euro membership being the decisive issue in the election. David Cameron, speaking in Chicago, said to them, “you can either vote to stay in the euro, with all the commitments you’ve made, or if you vote another way, you’re effectively voting to leave.”

Cameron’s statement goes hand in glove with a huge right-wing offensive in Greece to depress support for Syriza, where its opponents assert that a vote for Syriza is a vote to leave the single currency.

Syriza, who came second in the 6th May elections but led may opinion polls since, are now the leading opponents of the harsh austerity terms of the bailout, known as the Memorandum, which has seen wages slashed by 40-50% in many areas and aid agencies distributing food parcels in major cities. Yet despite this co-ordinated campaign by the right, Syriza has been at pains to make clear its determination both to change the terms of the bailout and maintain Euro membership.

To do so, the party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras has been leading his own offensive in the international media.

The New York Times reported, “He insisted that he wants Greece to stay in the euro, just not under the terms of its current bailout.” Allying himself with the pro-investment message of Obama and Hollande, he also said, “The message we’re giving to the G8 is that we have to press Mrs Merkel to follow the example of America, where the debt crisis wasn’t tackled with austerity measures but with an expansionist approach.”

And speaking to the Guardian here, Tsipras said, “We are not against a unified Europe or monetary union. The way that has been chosen to confront Greece is totally counter-productive. European tax payers should know that if they are giving money to Greece, it should have an effect … it should go towards investments and underwriting growth so that the Greek debt problem can be confronted because with this recipe we are not confronting the debt problem, the real issue.”

His position could not be clearer.
It was interesting then to hear Ed Balls discussing Greece on the Today programme this morning, stating, “the Greek people are now facing an economic plan which has been agreed and imposed from Northern Europe, with Britain’s support, which is neither economically sustainable or politically sustainable, and the only way through is to sit down and say what can actually be delivered in Greece? What tough decisions can be delivered realistically without depression or high unemployment?”The logical conclusion to Balls message is that the Greek people should be allowed to vote without blackmailing from Merkel or Cameron and that Labour should publicly welcome Tsipras’s willingness to engage in dialogue on the bailout.

The key issue in the Greek election is not Euro membership, but whether voters want a government that will impose austerity that is forcing millions towards poverty and reportedly driving up suicide rates, or a government that opposes the impoverishment of its people and wants to negotiate a better way forward, through investment rather than austerity.