If SYRIZA has come to power on a programme of public beheadings, banning women from driving and torturing its critics, it may have received a slightly warmer welcome from the governments of Europe writes Liam Mac Uaid. Instead, its proposals to roll back austerity and drag the people of Greece from poverty and misery have been explained away as harbingers of potential economic catastrophe across Europe. Ed Miliband was no more enthusiastic about the result than Cameron or Merkel, restricting himself to a begrudging “just like our elections are a matter for the people of this country, so who the Greek people elect is a decision for them.”
He’s right to be tetchy. Labour in Scotland is facing a meltdown comparable to its Greek sister party PASOK, which went from being the party of government a few years ago to being outnumbered ten to one by SYRIZA in the new parliament. The reasons are pretty similar too. The old parties of social democracy are haemorrhaging members and support across Europe as they are increasingly seen by working people as part of the neo-liberal problem, rather than the anti-austerity solution. In Scotland people are turning to the SNP. In England Labour support is going to UKIP and increasingly to the Greens. The upcoming election in the Spanish state offers the very real possibility of Podemos repeating SYRIZA’s success.
SYRIZA’s victory has the potential to change the balance of class forces across Europe. It’s not a revolutionary socialist party, and even if it were, there are no guarantees that it would force through its whole manifesto. However, it is committed to radical pro-working class measure that immediately put it in conflict with European capitalism. It is not possible to predict at this stage how much of its own programme SYRIZA’s leadership is willing to fight for. That will be determined by the level of mobilisation among the Greek working class as well as struggles fought inside the party. International support will also be crucial. Once the slight feeling of disbelief has worn off the European bourgeoisie will engineer crisis after crisis with the aim of forcing Greeks to vote again and this time vote the “right way”. Carping from the sidelines about this or that tactical mistake may be gratifying in such a situation but the absolute priority will be to provide political and moral solidarity. This may not be the equivalent of the Spanish Civil War, but what happens in Greece over the next few years will have a big impact on the class struggle across Europe. It is the decisive political event so far in the 21st century.
SYRIZA has some lessons to teach socialists in Britain. The Greek party has been able to form the government because it set itself that ambition. If it had limited itself to existing as an electoral coalition which was dusted off every year or so no one would have taken it seriously as a serious contender in national politics. It deliberately set out to be a multi-tendency party which embraced a wide spectrum of views from Trotskyist to Euro Communist to social democratic. That is a very different entity from something like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition which is, for all practical purposes, an electoral vehicle in which the component parts only campaign for their own candidates and is put back in the garage when the votes are counted. SYRIZA on the other hand has operated as a party for eleven years engaging with the mass movements and strikes which have been the Greek working class response to austerity. The party allowed them to give these struggles a governmental expression.
The British left has utterly failed to grasp the importance of broad parties in the period of neo-liberalism. It is one thing to rail against the general uselessness of Miliband and Labour. On the day when Tsipras was throwing down the gauntlet to the European Central Bank and making a living wage a legal requirement Miliband was thinking about reducing student fees slightly. It’s no surprise that younger, more educated voters are drifting to the Greens and alienated, less educated former Labour supporters are moving towards UKIP.
The fracturing of the two or three party system in the British state is good news for the socialists. Working people are less likely to be wedded to Labour. Most younger voters will be hard pushed to find anything actively attractive in neo-liberalism lite. The Greens, Podemos, SYRIZA and, regrettably UKIP, have demonstrated that people understand the importance of parties as a way of articulating a desire for political change. If ever socialists doubted that a broad, radical socialist party was attractive to working people the triumph in Greece has settled the question.