Greek lessons

Could political radicals learn a few lessons from how Syriza created a diverse coalition in Greece?

greek economy, debt crisis, politics
Syriza united a diverse coalition in Greece - could other countries like England emulate the results? [EPA]

The Coalition of the Radical Left (“Syriza”) in Greece includes communists, socialists, and environmentalists, reforming socialists and revolutionary communists. It campaigns on a shared platform, but each constituent party retains its own identity. Eight years ago in 2004 it secured just over 3 per cent of the popular vote. Since then, while the established parties of left and right took turns mismanaging the economy, the coalition has grown in popularity. It is now the second largest party in the country, winning nearly 27 per cent of the vote in the election in June this year.

The Greek electoral system combines some majoritarian elements with proportional representation and its particularities no doubt have some bearing on the nature of the Syriza coalition. But I wonder whether reformers and revolutionaries in the English-speaking world, Britain in particular, and England most especially, have something to learn from Syriza’s example. The British electoral system is punishingly difficult for small parties to break into. Nationalist parties are strong in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the big three parties dominate the electoral map in England. After decades of campaigning, the Green Party has managed to win one parliamentary seat. Salma Yaqoob’s Respect wins seats here and there, now and then, most recently in Bradford West. But the growing disenchantment with the current political and economic settlement finds scarce expression in the political class or the major media.


 Greece’s far-left party gains support

The Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties are all now thoroughly implicated in an economic crisis that is bad and getting worse. Yet at the moment they have the luxury of being able to ignore those who do not share their basic assumptions. What passes for responsible opinion in Westminster unites around the need to impose austerity on the majority in order to placate the markets and restore the animal spirits of the financial sector. The Coalition is to be protected until 2015, despite its manifest administrative incompetence and intellectual bankruptcy. Presented with evidence of their alarming lead in the polls, Labour MPs insist that they have a long way to go before they can regain the trust of the British people. The Labour leader Ed Miliband wants us to believe in him, it seems, but not too much.

The Labour movement decisively broke the Liberal-Conservative duopoly in 1945 by converting the vast reserves of solidarity and trust created in workplace struggles into votes in national elections. But while Labour’s breakthrough secured important social advances – most notably a National Health Service – the party now seems intent on policies that do little or nothing for its longsuffering supporters. It is not a plausibly left-wing party, for all that most of the few socialists still in Parliament are Labour party members. It doesn’t have a convincing agenda for thoroughgoing reform and appears reluctant to acquire one.

This creates an opportunity for the Green Party, for disaffected former supporters of the Liberal and Labour parties, for TUSC and Respect, for the new movements associated with the student movement and the occupations of last year, for campaigners against austerity and those who have mobilised to resist the hollowing out of the welfare state. Much of the political nation has been asphyxiated by the combination of the first-past-the-post electoral system and the BBC. But though all too many have been denied the oxygen of publicity they are still there, and they are losing patience. Perhaps all the parties and groups listed above cannot find enough common ground to sign up to a coalition against austerity and a political culture that now seems almost comically bereft of ideas and imagination. But some of them can – particularly if this shared programme acknowledges that no consensus yet exists for what will have to be a far-reaching political and economic settlement. We can’t print money and give it to bankers indefinitely, after all.

A Coalition of the Radical Left in Britain could perhaps also agree to campaign for an end to the country’s predatory foreign policy, for the dismantling of the offshore network, for democratic control of the central banks, urgent action to address the threat of catastrophic climate change, and reform of the national media regimes. In my view this last measure is the most important. We urgently need a public culture in which we are able to discuss imperialism, the economy, and the environment in ways that connect meaningfully with the facts. The existing arrangements seem designed expressly to prevent the emergence of such a public culture.

Still the Britain is as it is. Territoriality is key. Winner-takes-all, single seat constituencies favour those who can present themselves as a national government in waiting while drawing on local organisation and established loyalties. There are no plausible challengers to incumbents at the moment because no single party seems capable of breaking the grip of the incumbents nationwide. But more and more people reject the governing consensus and are anyway sceptical about traditional parties, professional politicians and the habits of sentiment they seek to exploit. Perhaps they will support a programme of reform that opens the way to further changes. Perhaps they are ready to take responsibility for the predicament in which they find themselves. They can vote for a candidate who has subscribed to the shared platform – a set of transitional demands, as they used to say – without having to support their long-term agenda. Assemblies could be convened to debate the platform and indicate who they would like their candidate to be. The platform can provide the foundations for new kinds of political association.

Clearly those who are disenchanted with the established parties disagree with one another on many issues. At times a wild energy surrounds our differences while our shared principles go unremarked. There is nothing like the dream of a better world to bring out the worst in people. But still, I remain an optimist. The unreformed political and communications condominium currently denies millions a meaningfully public status. Their concerns are not represented in the national debate and they have no immediate means to articulate, much less secure, their objectives. An amalgam of reformist and revolutionary parties and individuals, organised around a comprehensible agenda, can begin to give form to the undoubted desire for change, in England in particular. At a minimum an effective Coalition of the Radical Left would force the Labour to become more straightforwardly social democratic. (It might also strengthen the hand of progressives in Scotland as that country takes on new powers and responsibilities.) If things continue to deteriorate at the present rate, it might be the means by which we secure a much more thorough transformation.

The obstacles are formidable but they can be overcome because they have to be. It is too late for faith in the swindles of representation, too late for the purity of abstention. Things are too serious. Let’s focus on what we want and unite around an electoral alternative to the goons, frauds and chancers who currently run the show. We’ll still have plenty of time to tear lumps out of each other on Twitter.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.