Look at Syriza. Look at Greece. That’s what Jeremy Corbyn would do for Labour and Britain

by Kevin Feeney

During a recent twitter discussion about the lessons to be learnt from the latest stage of the interminable saga of the Greek crisis, one of Britain’s finest centre-left commentators, Phil Collins, claimed that it was quite simple; there are in fact no lessons for the British left from Greece.

After six months of hyperbolic nonsense about a war between democracy and austerity from many sections of the Labour party, this is an understandable reaction – especially in light of the colossal differences between the societies, political systems and present economics of the two countries.

Nevertheless, Collins goes too far here – there are in fact two key lessons which we might usefully draw, even if these are more reinforcements of points that might have been guessed before rather than innovations.

  1. The far left can win (just about, if presented with the total collapse of the political system)

Commentators like Collins spend much of their time pointing out to the sort of people now backing Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader that they can’t possibly win a general election. Many of them now respond that Greece’s election of the far left Syriza proves otherwise and it’s true; all it would take would be the complete implosion of the economy, political system and much of civil society and the UK too could have an extremist government.

In Greece, even presented with all of those things and a five year depression under the major parties of left and right, the far left still barely crawled over the finish line on a vote share so low that it was below that won by the second placed party in every Greek election between 1985 and 2009, necessitating coalition with Greece’s equivalent of UKIP.

This is not to suggest that this government lacks legitimacy. The Syriza regime, after all, possesses almost as much legitimacy as Cameron’s Conservatives, who won a higher vote share on higher turnout months later.

Yet it has required an enormous amount of spin and new levels of self-delusion for many on the left to convert a bare mandate from an exhausted and disillusioned electorate reckoning things can’t possibly get any worse into what one columnist hilariously dubbed “the politics of hope.”

The lesson for the British left here should be stark; even presented with the most favourable possible context for the far left, one so dramatic as to be essentially impossible in Britain, they can still only just scrape home.

  1. Their ideas still don’t work

Unfortunately for them, it turns out that even in the once in a century conditions which permit a hard left faction to take power, their ideas still work about as well in practice as they typically do at the ballot box.

If the ‘governance’ of Greece over the past six months – a term I use in its loosest possible sense – has a redeeming feature, it is that its ideological inflexibility has been a distinct second to its sheer incompetence.

Surprisingly to some, it turns out that shouting slogans about ending austerity doesn’t actually achieve anything and making impossible demands of your creditors while comparing them to Nazis, torturers and terrorists has not proved a good way to win friends. Greece entered the newest talks with few allies; by last weekend it had none whatsoever.

The government has lurched from crisis to crisis, unable to make compromises yet demanding them at every turn. Its childish temper tantrum and decision to call a referendum which was, to say the least, severely lacking in true democratic legitimacy, has merely been the latest in a long line of obstinate gestures that have burnt bridges on all sides. Its former finance minister was just dubbed the worst in Europe by another centre-left commentator and this geographic limitation seems if anything rather charitable. This is in no small part because of the irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of Syriza’s winning platform; the dual promises to end austerity and to remain in the Euro.

For most of their international cheerleaders, who do not need to endure the humiliation of credit controls and withdrawal limits, the former was the only priority that mattered. In the last week, prime minister Alexis Tsipras has belatedly realized that for his people, it was the second which always counted for far more and he has hastily abandoned the anti-austerity drive entirely.

At the time of writing, it seems that after a final wrecking effort by northern European hardliners refusing to accept Tsipras’ surrender, a third bailout deal has been completed. As this last obstacle indicates, Syriza cannot take all the blame for the economic catastrophe of recent months, and the same hardliners also deserve much opprobrium for the frequently disastrous terms which they have foisted on Greece in the past.

Yet it is the fecklessness of the Greek government’s negotiating strategy and their utter separation from reality which have been the primary causes of a deal far worse for Greece than it should have been. It is the Greek people, above all the poor, who will suffer most from the game-playing of this supposedly left-wing government. In a makeshift alliance of charlatans and lunatics, Tsipras deserves only limited credit for deciding at the last minute that he was just a charlatan after all.

This, then, is the ultimate lesson which Greece holds for Labour; Syriza has presented us with the Platonic form of atrociously bad left-wing government. Rather than a model to be emulated, they should be seen as a stark warning.

Unthinkable as it may seem, this shower of clowns is what we could yet become if the Corbynites have their way in the short term, or if modernisers fail in the longer term to make the Labour Party an electable, centrist force for progressive governance once again.

Kevin Feeney is a Labour party member

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10 Responses to “Look at Syriza. Look at Greece. That’s what Jeremy Corbyn would do for Labour and Britain”

  1. swatantra says:

    Basically the Greek People were lied to by the Greek Govt promising them they could negotiate themselves out of Austerity. But it isn’t possible. They were sold a pig in a poke in the same way that Gordon sold off the Scottish Peoples in the Referendum denying them Independence, and for that Labour got hammered in the GE. Do we really want Labour to suffer any more by making promises we can’t keep to the British people? Or are we going to be honest with them?
    We’ll know by Wednesday whether the anger over the Settlement causes the downfall of the Greek Govt. The Greek People are not happy bunnies at the moment.

  2. Dan says:

    Kinda disappointed that this wasn’t ‘Groovy Kind of Love’ Phil Collins in the first link tbh.

    When Syriza won in Jan, there was a good portion of the left who were furiously wanking themselves into a state of ecstasy about The End of Austerity that had just arrived courtesy of our Hellenic chums. They all seem to have gone quiet except for the increasingly divorced from reality Paul Mason who’s fanboy worship of Varoufakis is nothing less than embarassing.

    Tspiras and co, took a terribly damaged economy and proceeded to completely kill it off in 6 months. That’s got to be some kind of record. Hell, the last minute deal at the weekend is wayyyyyyy worse than the one they were offered a few weeks previously. There is no other way of describing Tsipras other than ‘Dismal Failure’ – I’m amazed that he’s still around – surely he can’t last after this?

    As for Corbyn – if he ends up as leader (and I don’t think he will — it’ll be Andy ‘He’ll do I suppose’ Burnham) then Labour is over. I know that may sound histrionic but I really think a few years of Corbynism would finish the party off – the Wolfie Smiths and single-issue loons would scare off the normal ppl.

    Christ, his revolting support for various groups of middle eastern loons should have been enough for him not to be allowed to sit at the grown-ups table. But here we are.

  3. John R says:

    Andy ‘He’ll do I suppose’ Burnham is the most inspiring Labour leadership slogan I have yet heard.

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    The mistake Syriza made was to enter the negotiations saying they wanted to stay in the Euro. More sensible would have been to say – ok, we will probably have to leave unless you give us the means to stay in. Then the emphasis would have been on their attempts to keep them on side.

    I still think that the Euro is an unworkable irrelevance and its just a matter of when Greece needs to withdraw again

  5. Stephen Hildon says:

    Syriza are not “far left”. That would be the KKE and various other parties in Greece to the left of Syriza. Comparing the results to previous years is somewhat pointless. Electoral politics is a lot more fractured now than in previous years.

    Syriza won with a ticking time-bomb of debt and another bailout was inevitable. The previous decades of ND/PASOK rule than Kevin Feeney appears to wish was in place still was what put Greece in the position in the first place. Greece’s economy, after a couple of quarters of growth, started to contract again in the final quarter of 2014 which is why Syriza won in January.

    A mountain of debt that cannot be paid back is just that, it won’t be paid back. There is pretty much zero chance that Greece be able to find the money it owes. The assumption that €50 billion can be raised through a sell off of state assets, however a tenth of that is more realistic. No money will be available for economic expansion. Ultimately the even more severe austerity will cause sever hardship, especially for the sick, poor and old.

    The troika et al insisting on repeating for the third time a policy that they have tried twice before is lunacy and bound to fail. This situation will be repeated again in a year or two. The make up of the Greek government is irrelevant really, though the troika’s obvious dislike for Syriza drove them to insist on an even more severe bailout package.

    Ukraine’s finance minister is surely worse than Greece’s!

    The much more obvious lesson from Greece is PASOK. If established party of the left moves too far towards the centre, then a new party will fill the vacuum. This has already happened to a certain extent in Scotland, Germany and potentially Spain.

    For a centre-left party to win it needs to be able to appeal to both its base and the centre ground. There are many governments as left wing as Syriza in the world. They just don’t have to deal such as dire situation that Syriza inherited.

    This article trying to draw similarities to the Labour leadership election is just a load of name calling nonsense.

  6. What you should be worried by Kevin, is the Labour Party following PASOK down the road to irrelevance, something we have already managed to do in Scotland if the latest polling is to be believed. About the only contender I can see who may be able to change the downward path the party is on is Corbyn. Still if you can see hope in Burnham, Cooper or Kendall, good luck to you.

  7. Fred says:

    The SNP are not left-wing

  8. Tafia says:

    The SNP are not left-wing

    Is the correct answer Fred.

    They are european-style social democrats and persue a neo-liberalist economic agenda. When the tories were annihalted up there a decade ago, where do people think those tory voters went? Because turnout figures show that they didn’t stop voting. The SNP appeal to both left and right.

  9. paul barker says:

    Can I refer everyone to the New Statesman piece on polls (done, presumably for the Burnham & Cooper campaigns) showing Corbyn in the lead. LOL.

  10. Kevin Feeney says:

    SYRIZA are a far left party. The facts that there are parties further to the left than them and that they have become less far left over time do not alter this fact. Comparing the results to previous years is certainly relevant when people are attempting to claim it as a historic landslide; big for a far left party but small by any other standard.

    It is certainly true that ND and PASOK were poor parties and bad managers who helped cause the Greek crisis. This does not mean that SYRIZA have not been dramatically worse. It is true that the tentative Greek recovery was running into difficulties before the election. That does not make it ok to crash the economy still further and default.

    PASOK did not fail because it ‘moved too close to the centre’ but because it was a clientilist and corrupt centre-left party attempting to implement tough measures in historically appalling economic circumstances. This has not happened in Germany or in Spain and certainly not in Scotland, where Labour has been displaced by a nationalist party rather than one genuinely to its left. It is however telling that people wish to insist on looking at what happened to PASOK rather than paying attention to what happened to the party who replaced them – now signed up to far harsher measures than anything PASOK ever implemented.

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