Monday, 26 January 2015

Syriza's Lesson For Labour – To Win, Turn Left

Syriza has gone from a fringe protest party a couple of years ago, to winning yesterday's elections with a large enough vote, even in a sort of proportional representation system, to almost form a majority government. It is just two seats short, and even in the last week has gone from a 2% lead over the right-wing New Democracy party, to an 8% lead in the election itself. It goes alongside a similar rise in popularity from nowhere, of Podemos in Spain, and on a much scale, part of the appeal of the Greens in Britain, and the SNP in Scotland, is their left populist message. In a sense, it is only a mirror image of the right populism of UKIP, the FN, and other such parties across Europe.

The danger for Labour, most clear in Scotland, is that this left populism could cost it votes, and thereby seats required to form a majority government. Those tempted by such left populism, particularly in the shape of the Greens, should remember Cleggmania. Many petit-bourgeois elements were fooled ahead of the 2010 election to believe the fake left rhetoric that the Liberals spouted, simply to garner votes, only to then form a coalition with the Tories, on the most conservative agenda seen in decades. The experience of the Greens where they have run Councils, such as in Brighton, should give workers no more reason to believe their radical rhetoric either.

But, Labour has a simple solution to deal with this danger – turn Left. In the years, both before and after the 2008 financial crisis, the Tories in Britain, said nothing about the need to restrain spending. On the contrary, the new compassionate conservatism that Cameron was supposed to represent, insisted that whatever spending plans Labour had, the Tories would at least match them in government. When the 2008 financial crisis broke out in September of that year, not just the Tories in Britain, said nothing about constraining spending, especially in relation to bailing-out the banks, whose reckless lending policies had been first encouraged by Thatcher in the 1980's. The same keenness to introduce stimulative spending measures was seen in the US, from George Bush. A spate of increased government spending was introduced across the globe, which acted to stem a slide into recession. The arch-Thatcherite Samuel Brittain, wrote in the FT, “We are all Keynesians now.”

It was only in 2009, after the spectacle of very rich bankers, who were seen to have caused the crisis, getting huge multi-million dollar bonuses, and severance packages, not to mention knighthoods, that a reaction set in. On the one hand, there was the reaction of the Occupy Movement, that had a rather amorphous response to the Socialism For The Rich, that was represented by the bank bail-outs. On the other, there was an almost mirror image, libertarian response from the Tea Party. Both attracted significant support in a very short time. The Tea Party was able to have a disproportional effect, because it was able to leverage additional power from within the Republican Party.

That success in 2009, in particular, sent a message to the Tories, to change tack. The message of austerity was not a popular one, whatever the media and conservative ideologists might now claim. It did not, for example, give Cameron enough support to win the election outright. In fact, one reason for the change of tack by the Tories was not to win the election, but merely to consolidate the Tories core vote, for whom reducing the size of the state is a central issue. Similarly, whatever the Liberals may say now, even as they went into the coalition negotiations, they were arguing that austerity was the wrong medicine, until such time as the recovery had been secured.

What we are being told now, is that the reason Labour does not have a clear lead is because it is not trusted on the economy. In turn that is interpreted as meaning that Labour is not trusted to impose austerity. But, there is another interpretation, and one that I think is more valid. It is that Labour's economic message is confused and unclear. On the one hand, they say the Liberal-Tory austerity measures are damaging the economy – a truth that everyone can see in their daily lives, and has been able to see for the last four years. On the other hand, Labour says, but we will basically continue those austerity measures if you elect us! With such a confused and confusing message, no wonder people when asked say they do not trust Labour on the economy. If I was asked that question, I would, if answering honestly also have to say, “No.” My answer would be completely different, if Labour simply said, as Syriza have done, austerity is killing the economy, it is counter-productive, we will end it, and introduce measures to promote economic growth.

As it is, Labour is left in a position, where instead of being able to tell a compelling story, they are left explaining technicalities of why there cuts are better cuts than those of the Liberal-Tories, and when you get into that level of explaining technicalities, the voters stop listening. The lesson of Syriza, of the supposed “Green surge”, and of the support for the SNP, is that people are fed up with austerity. It is a failed policy, based upon conservative ideology, not even upon sensible capitalist economic policy, and social democracy should grow some balls, and say so. Across, Europe, the old social democratic parties, after thirty years of the dominance of that conservative ideology, have become afraid of their own shadow. They are fighting yesterday's wars, in trying to secure their economic credibility, based upon a failed economic policy, whose relevance had limited scope even thirty years ago, but which today has none.

The lesson Syriza's victory, is that if Labour comes out loudly against a continuation of the Liberal-Tory policy of austerity, it can not only sweep aside the left populism of the SNP and Greens, but it can secure a clear majority in May. A further central part of that programme should be to open talks with Syriza, with Podemos in Spain, along with the other European social-democratic parties, first to organise support for and defence of the Syriza government, against the inevitable opposition it will face from conservative forces, and from the interests of money-lending capital. It should form that basis of a rejuvenation of the Second International, as an organising centre for the labour movement, at least across Europe.

Pressure should be put on the German SPD as coalition partner to Merkel to demand the write off of Greek debts, and the convening of a European convention of workers organisations to draw up a programme for an end to austerity, and for growth, based upon a plan for investment across the continent, especially in those peripheral economies that most need capital, in order to provide decent employment, and ensure the development of globally competitive industries.

Cameron and the Tories, switched their message from matching labour's spending commitments to austerity only months before the 2010 election, and despite the unpopularity of that message, it was at least clear compared to the confused message that Alistair Darling was conveying. There is still time for Labour to perform a similar switch of policy away from its current confused message, to one of clear opposition to austerity, and for a clear policy of growth on a planned basis across Europe. They should do so, before its too late. 

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