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.


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.

Across Europe, the left advances against austerity

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.