Greece: A Cautionary Tale for Labour & Hopeful Message for the Progressive Left


In recent weeks, we have seen Labour vote for further austerity and against a motion to stop the costly replacement of Trident as well as rumours emerging that Labour would happily enter a ‘grand coalition’ with the Conservatives to avoid having to do a deal with the SNP, Greens and/or Plaid Cymru.

However, a look across Europe to Greece should show the self-proclaimed party of social justice a salutary lesson in the dangers of cozying up to the traditional centre-right and being actively complicit in enforcing austerity on an increasingly unwilling populace.

Back in 2009, Greece’s equivalent of the Labour party PASOK won a snap general election with 44% of the vote and a parliamentary majority (160 seats in 300.)

However following the bailout from the EU, that government was subjected to a vote of no confidence, which they only won when they agreed to step down and form a ‘unity government’ with other parties. This led to a brace of elections in 2012 where the first election in May failed to produce a government and in June a new ‘national unity government’ was formed with New Democracy (the Greek analogue to the Conservatives) as the largest party, propped up by votes from a much reduced PASOK and for a while, a smaller centre-left party, DIMAR.

In contrast to PASOK going from 160 seats and 44% of the vote to 33 seats and 12% of the vote in only three years, SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left) went from 13 seats and 4% of the vote to become the second largest party with 71 seats and 27% of the vote in the same period.

Come up to date with Sunday’s elections and SYRIZA have since risen to power while PASOK have gone from being in a majority government to receiving 4.7 % of the vote and only 13 seats.

The narrative is clear – an established party with centre-left roots who drifts too far to the right, implements austerity measures and actively assists their traditional enemy – the centre-right establishment party runs the risk of haemorrhaging support to parties who stay true to their roots/message.

Indeed, we’ve already seen something similar happen in the UK with the Liberal Democrats support base melting away as they propped up David Cameron’s regime and centre-left alternatives like the Greens and SNP seeing almost proportional increases in support.

Labour need to consider their next moves carefully. They are probably going to win the upcoming election, but their actions should they win a majority and their choice of bedfellows should they fall short will be telling.

A grand coalition with the Conservatives could lead to five years with a Labour Prime Minister (although I suspect that David Cameron would continue as PM even if Labour won more seats, seeing as he is the incumbent) and lots of nice ministerial jobs for the elite of the party.

However, if Labour help keep the Conservatives in power, continue on the path of austerity and continue to pay lip service to equality and progressiveness while repeatedly acting more in the interests of the wealthy, corporate interests and the establishment then they stand to experience the same fall as PASOK.

A disastrous 2020 general election, which sees Labour reduced to a fringe party is a distinct possibility if they do not acknowledge this.

Another lesson from Greece’s recent history is that the best thing the progressive left can do is pull together – SYRIZA was originally composed of some thirteen distinct groups (even though it has been a wholly unitary party since 2013) with a broad range of philosophies but coming together in the common goal of a fairer Greece and a fairer Europe.

If you lump the various centre-left leaning parties in Britain together (admittedly an unlikely & unwieldy coalition composed of many regional factions) then it theoretically would have won around 1.25 million votes in the 2010 election, coming fourth in terms of the popular vote and won at least 18 seats…

Now, if you assume that they would attract a significant number of disillusioned Labour & Liberal Democrat voters (based on the Liberal collapse since 2010 and a similar Labour one following a continuation of austerity policies after 2015) in addition to providing a rallying point for more regional or fringe elements you could easily see such a coalition winning an election in 2020…

Of course, uniting into a unitary centre-left party would diminish much of the vibrancy and passion of the progressively minded, who have ever been prone to succumbing to in-fighting but a spirit of co-operation and debate, rather than division, confrontation and slander would go a long way to achieving the progressive change that most people want – if only they could break free of old certainties and have a workable banner to march behind.

This very problem stands to be one of Alexis Tsipras & SYRIZA’s greatest challenges now (behind successfully pushing through reform at home with a right wing coalition partner and achieving an improved settlement with the EU) and would surely be a major stumbling block to the establishment of a British ‘Coalition of the Radical Left.’

Still, the rise of SYRIZA & Podemos has shown that such things are possible and I am ever one to look on the side of hope.


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