Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: Snake oil simple answers

Greek radicals Syriza swept to power three years ago with pledges of simple solutions to difficult problems. What has followed? Austerity and deals with the hard right, writes Robert Philpot in the Last Word

Three years ago this week, Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected the bailout plan proposed by Europe and the International Monetary Fund, precipitating a crisis which threatened to see the country crash out of the euro.

The referedum was called by Alex Tsipras, who had led the far left Syriza party to power six months previously promising an end to austerity and to fight the ‘humanitarian crisis’ afflicting his country. During the referendum, he condemned the ‘humiliation’ Europe sought to visit upon Greece and the ‘unbearable’ measures it demanded.

But, having marched his people up the hill, Tsipras then promptly marched them back down again. Over the past three years, the unholy alliance of far left and far right which governs Greece – Syriza chose an anti-immigrant, socially conservative, Eurosceptic party as its junior coalition partner – has served up a diet of unadulterated austerity, meekly complying with its creditors’ demands at every turn.

Last month, the country at last shook off the chains of its bailout programme. It has survived in the euro, the economy is growing and unemployment is falling. But Greece has paid a heavy price: unemployment may be down from the 30 percent it hit in 2013, but one in five Greeks is still without work. Pay has fallen sharply while taxes have risen. Poverty is endemic and the slow pace of recovery, the IMF recently reported, means that the country’s wealth may not return to pre-crash levels for another 10 years.

Economists can debate whether this economic pain was avoidable, but the political fallout is rather more clear-cut.

During the 2015 Labour leadership contest, Syriza was held up by some as a model for the kind of radicalism which could revive the British left. By contrast, Labour was warned that the fate of ‘Pasokification’ – support for Greek’s once-dominant social democrats had collapsed from 44 percent in 2009 to just four percent six years later – awaited it if it did not opt for a new path.

Three years on, Greece offers a cautionary tale about the perils of the inflated, unachieveable promises peddled by populists such as Tsipras.

As the historian and commentator Anne Applebaum recently suggested: ‘Greece may now offer a possible answer to an important question: if the response to populism is often more extreme populism, then what happens after the more extreme populism has failed? Part of the answer is … nothing: the protracted Greek crisis has led to apathy, exhaustion and a deep conviction that all politics is corrupt. There isn’t huge enthusiasm for any political projects right now.’

Indeed, polls show that the centre-right opposition will drive Syriza from power when elections are held next year.

Those who deal in political snake oil come in all ideological shapes and sizes. Theresa May shamelessly aped the most extreme rhetoric of the Brexiteers when she entered No.10, masking the complex and difficult choices the country still faces beneath the banal and crude rhetoric of ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

But the lesson from Greece is that who offer simple answers to tough questions – while insisting that they are the purveyors of a new ‘straight talking honest politics’ – can expect scant reward from voters when they find they have been taken for a ride.

Unite the union? No, get out the union

Len McCluskey appears to have a slightly novel view of democracy. In December 2016 he resigned as general secretary of Unite and triggered an early election for the post. McCluskey won that gamble in April 2017 and the union celebrated by suspending his principal challenger, Gerard Coyne, from his position as its head in the west Midlands. But victory – achieved on an astronomical turnout of 12 percent of Unite’s members – still does not seem to have made McCluskey happy. At this week’s Unite conference, he was still grumbling that someone had had the temerity to stand against him. ‘Get out of our union and stay out,’ he railed against the ‘shadowy conspiracy’ which had sought to unseat him.

Psephology psmephology

Also at Unite this week, Jeremy Corbyn proclaimed that his party was back as the ‘political voice of the working class’. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what the psephology shows. At last year’s general election, the party trailed the Tories by seven points among skilled manual workers and led them by just three percent among the semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations. Compare that to 2005 when Labour last won a general election: Tony Blair clocked up a seven point lead among the former and was 23 percent ahead of the Tories among the latter.

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Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot

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Photo: Russian Presidential Press, licensed under Creative Commons

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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