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What Can the British Left Learn From Syriza's Greek Election Triumph?

UK socialists need to wait for Labour to come to power and become even more hated – then they can pounce.

Ecstatic Greek leftists (Photo by Dimitris Michalakis)

Flocks of young British left-wingers are boarding their RyanAir flights back to Stansted from Athens, having spent the last few days watching something that is unheard of in their homeland – the electoral victory of a party from the political far left. The question now is this: Are the clenched-fist selfies taken over the last few days merely going to be mementos of some election tourism? Or will young lefties bring back, along with their cut-price fags and hangovers, the ideas and momentum behind Syriza's victory and make a mark on the British political landscape?


On Saturday night I squeezed into a packed Syriza campaign base while giant flags waved overhead and "Bandiera Rossa" was belted out by an international crowd of ecstatic socialist revellers. They felt they were on the cusp of a real counterattack to the widely touted message that there is no alternative to European austerity. It was an entirely different vibe to the UK anti-cuts movement, which usually involves marching in the rain to Hyde Park to hear the platitudes of a trade union bureaucrat and the gags of a failing comedian chasing the Tory-hating pound.

In the UK, anti-austerity politics is mostly irrelevant. The only party worth mentioning who are offering it at the election are the Green Party. Their rejection of austerity apparently warrants the kind of haughty condescension Andrew Neil recently lavished upon leader Natalie Bennett during the BBC's Sunday Politics. 2015's general election will be between a choice of parties that will mete out more cuts. How could a Syriza-like movement take off over here?

The first thing to remember is that the likes of Syriza and Podemos – the party seen by many as Spain's equivalent to Syriza – weren't always so popular. Podemos are only a year old, but in their one election campaign for the European Parliament they gained five seats. Now they are a genuine contender to come out on top in this year's election. Likewise, when they started out as an electoral alliance in 2004, Syriza gained just 3.3 percent of the popular vote. Fast forward a couple of full parliamentary terms and yesterday Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras was being sworn in as Prime Minister, after declaring that austerity was "cancelled" in his victory speech. Suddenly, the Green Party's potential to win – at best ­– three MPs this year doesn't look as laughably irrelevant. The lesson here is not to despair.


That said, at the moment, the economic situations are significantly different in Greece and the UK. While Greece's unemployment level is at 25 percent, the UK's is sitting at around 6 percent. Meanwhile, the UK's debt as a proportion of its GDP – around 89 percent – almost looks optimistic next to Greece's 174 percent. Spain's vital statistics are approaching Greek levels – "only" 98 percent debt to GDP, but one in every four working-age people is unemployed. But in both Spain and the UK there remains a key missing factor, the bogey-man that has been the target of Syriza's election drive: the "Troika".

Formed of the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Troika is the puppet master that dealt Greece a bailout earlier in the Eurozone crisis. In doing so, it got to determine the conditions of how Greece would pay the bailout money back: unrelenting austerity leading to mass unemployment, poverty and a slashed public sector. Without doubt, the pressure of the Troika has been a central factor in galvanising Syriza's support. In Exarchia – Athens' left-wing district – a Syriza supporter called Nicol Vigou told me he thought maybe just 8 percent of the Syriza vote were die-hard supporters. The remaining 30-odd percent were less fervent fans of Syriza and more ardent haters of the Troika. This suggests that the British left needs to stop preaching to the converted and reach out beyond its core support. Maybe it could do this by identifying a common enemy – say, someone bringing about austerity who is hate-worthy enough to get booed by an entire Olympic Stadium full of flag-waving patriots.


Syriza has been able to do that partly because the radical left in Greece is unique among European countries in its variety and visibility. The oldest players are the KKE – the Communist Party of Greece. They have been hanging around in parliament for as long as anyone can remember, barring the dictatorship years. That means radical-left politics have long been present in the peripheries of the Greek consciousness. Most communist or socialist groups can trace some lineage back to the KKE, and indeed Syriza is no exception.

While the splits and infighting might be mirrored in the British left, no socialist faction is particularly consequential in British life. The Greek left, despite being small until recently, is a fixture of public life – it's not unusual, for instance, to see party papers for sale at news kiosks, or to end up having a coffee in a party-owned café. Beyond the various political positions, these are institutionalised through a thriving and established left-culture. Surely this isn't an argument that Russell Brand could get into our heads a bit more?

Having a strong, if modest, social base has undoubtedly enabled Syriza to step up their activity since the crisis. However, the real "big break" arrived with the implosion of PASOK – the Greek version of the Labour Party. From winning just shy of 44 percent of the vote in 2009, PASOK began to crumble in the face of the Eurozone crisis, leader George Papandreou all but signing off on his party's own death warrant when he added his signature to the Troika's bailout conditions. When this month's elections were announced over the new year, Papandreou decided to cut and run by standing on his own platform. PASOK held a 160-strong majority three years ago. This election, PASOK scraped together 4.68 percent – only just enough share of the vote to be represented in parliament at all. Graffiti on the party's shut-down campaign hub read: "No chance. Closed for good."


Syriza could not have won without the annihilation of PASOK. Until their demise, PASOK had taken up one half of a fairly typical bipartisan power-hog with conservatives, New Democracy – much like the current situation in Westminster. Nicol in Exarchia said, "PASOK imploded not because of the sudden rise of Syriza; it was unfortunately the contrary. It was the implosion of PASOK that caused it Syriza to rise." Maybe there's a message here, if not a lesson, for the British left, in the Conservative Party's Miliband-bashing campaigning tactics – it may be Labour's unpopularity, rather than a mass embrace of socialism, that propels an anti-austerity party to power. The difference is that the left shouldn't become negative. PASOK became emblematic of the despair the Troika wreaked and have been crushed. Syriza, on the other hand, became emblematic of hope.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras (Photo by Dimitris Michalakis)

This obviously poses a big question for Ed Miliband, who reacted to the Syriza victory in the most mealy-mouthed way imaginable, saying, "who the Greek people elect is a decision for them", as if that particularly needed stating. The question is: How can any party battling over the political "centre-ground" – which involves harsh austerity not totally unlike that which screwed Greece over – simultaneously claim to be a party of "the people", the aspiring working class and resource-heavy institutions like the NHS?

The British left needs to take a long, hard look at its PASOK: the Labour Party. Labour are likely to lead a coalition, if not gain a majority, in May. So far they have nothing concrete in the bag, except for the occasional facepalm announcement that they won't reverse Coalition cuts to this or that vital service. What's worse is that the deficit hasn't been reduced nearly as much as George Osborne intended, meaning if Labour want to keep on-course, the worst cuts are yet to come. Yesterday, 15 MPs made an aptly-timed statement to intervene in Labour's collision course, but it's unlikely to have an impact. When the party that left-wing people will vote for is going to cut deeper than the "nasty party", Labour could have a disaster of PASOK proportions on their hands. In turn, this could create a vacuum for a left-wing alternative to wade into.


Syriza kept the Troika in their sights and drew upon their social roots to develop a tailored model for restoring hope to Greek politics. For how long remains to be seen, but while the Troika isn't looming over the UK yet, we do know that austerity is going to get worse. With few resources, comparatively little visibility and no real social or cultural base, if an anti-austerity counterattack is going to take off in Britain, the left will probably not be able to replicate Syriza's success by imitation. But there are certainly lessons to draw upon.


More from the Greek Election:

In Photos: Greeks Celebrate and Mourn the Country's Historic Left-Wing Election Win

We Asked Greek's Social Outcasts If the New Government Gives them Hope

British Leftists Are Flocking to Athens for Greece's Election Party