What Labour could learn from the Greeks
Syriza Party leader Alexis Tsipras greets supporters in 2012 in Athens. Photo: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images   

“We will play the drum and they [the EU] will dance. And because we’re in Crete we’ll play the lyra and the markets will dance the pendozali.”

That was the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, on the campaign trail in 2014. He came to power on a hard-Left platform promising to take on the EU and its reviled austerity measures; he would, he said, force it to surrender. Greeks would get their dignity – and their lifestyles – back.

He failed abjectly.

*          *          *

The DVD hawkers in Exarchia Square are more desperate than usual. They brandish their pirated DVDs under your nose for a few seconds longer; refusal is harder to take. The scent of cannabis hangs even thicker in the air. Drug dealers, swollen in number, moodily stalk the area, offering everything from pills to cocaine. And among it all are the immigrants: Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis, Congolese, Iraqis, Somalis, Bangladeshis, Albanians and of course Syrians. They idle and loiter. Work is near non-existent: the drift to crime is inexorable.

Greece is the first European port of call – literally – for the great migrant tidal wave of our era. And Exarchia, the hotbed of Leftist radicalism in Greece’s capital city, Athens, is one of the places where they are most welcome.

Exarchia once loved Tspiras and his once hard-Left, populist party, Syriza (an acronym that stands for Coalition of the Radical Left). In an area known for its anarchists who refuse on principle to vote, there were a lot of people talking about their support for a political party four years ago.

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“Redistributing the wealth”; attacking the “corrupt elites”; telling “Madam Merkel and her Fourth Reich” to get stuffed: Syriza brimmed with populist far-Left rhetoric, and the people, strafed by austerity, lapped it up.

In this sense, Greece was merely part of a broader trend – albeit a frontrunner, given the near existential financial crisis it faced. Following the Great Recession of 2008, there was a deepening in the West of the mass crisis of faith in its institutions that had begun just after the turn of the century. The trajectory was as clear as it was linear. The political class was discredited by Iraq; the financial establishment by the Great Recession; the media by repeated scandals and the rise of social networks; and, finally, the security services by the 2011 Snowden revelations.

This crisis coincided with the digital revolution: an advance in information technology of an order of magnitude not seen in human history. And, like the advent of all new information technologies from the printing press onwards, it has disrupted and destabilised the existing order.

The result has been that mainstream parties have suffered at the hands of extremes on both Left and Right. From Gert Wilders in the Netherlands to Viktor Orbán to eventually Donald Trump in the US, populist demagogues have either gained support or taken power at the expense of the technocrats that once dominated our governing class.

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But with Greece we were able to witness, in almost perfect laboratory conditions, an experiment with the hard Left in government. The country was made for it. Following the end of the military junta in 1974, Greece moved Leftwards, and from 1981 onwards was almost permanently governed by the social democrat PASOK party. Leftism was in, and for a while it worked. PASOK removed the excessive powers of the President, various repressive laws, created a national health service and boosted wages.

But social democracy soon curdled into clientism. PASOK created and expanded a middle class that lived off the public sector. People retired in their forties; taxes went unpaid; bribery became endemic. The cheap credit of the early 2000s meant that Greeks lived lifestyles they simply had no right to – before it all came crashing down in 2008.

As Daphne Halikiopoulou, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Reading, observes: “What was different about Greece’s left-wing populist explosion was that it was based on anti-corruption. It wasn’t and isn’t about identity politics. PASOK imploded because the system upon which post-dictatorship Greece was based – called Metapolitefsi– had become totally rotten.”

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She continues: “What happened was that PASOK and then the short-lived New Democracy [Greece’s centre-right party] government created and expanded a middle class that lived off the public sector – the system was about to implode and the middle class suffered the most so they became radicalised.”

And in Greece, as in almost all developed countries, the middle class controls electoral politics. Lose it, and you have lost all chance of remaining in government.

The destruction of PASOK from a once dominant force to a minor player in Greek politics was so great that “Pasokification” has become a catch-all description for the general phenomenon of Social Democrat parties withering in the face of populism from both the Right and Left. Orbán and Trump may be ascendant but that is only half the story. The other is the decline of the centre Left. In the 2017 general election the Netherlands saw the Labour party’s share of the vote collapse from 25% to 6%; Spain saw its centre Left decline with the emergence of the hard-Left Podemos party, while in the UK the Labour Party has undergone internal Pasokification as Jeremy Corbyn and his hard-Left allies have taken it over.

Corbynism may have captured the apparatus of the Labour Party, and its adherents may consider themselves the government in waiting, but the Syriza example should give them pause for thought.

*          *          *

“Tsipras! He is a traitor,” the man makes a spitting motion, but thankfully nothing comes out. “He sold out on everything – and after only five minutes, too. And it has only gotten worse. He has surrendered to the Germans. It is shameful. He is shameful.” The man is Manolis, and he owns one of the many periptera – simple kiosks that sell everything from sweets and fizzy drinks to newspapers – that dot the Athens cityscape.

His complaint is not new. The only surprise is that he still bothers to express it so long after the hard Left’s disillusionment with Tsipras hit, which came just months after he took power and is at the centre of the political homily that Greece’s experiment with Leftist populism has become. To many, Tsipras has long been seen as a traitor.

Tsipras promised to make both the EU and the financial markets dance to Syriza’s tune. It is fitting that hubris is a Greek word. Nemesis followed more quickly than even the majority of his most ardent detractors could have thought.

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He took power in January 2015. It took until just July for him to reverse – unequivocally – on his promises to end austerity and take on the EU. On July 5, 2015 Greeks voted to reject further austerity. The so-called Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) then told Syriza in no uncertain terms that if it did so, Greece would be booted out of the Eurozone, and possibly even one day, the EU. Oh, and by the way, they would also have to get rid of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who had managed to alienate all of Greece’s negotiating partners with his obnoxious behaviour.

Tsipras had a choice. Stick to his populist bombast and watch his country go under, or abandon it and try to save Greece. He chose the latter option, putting forward a package which accepted even more arduous austerity measures. Greece survived.

His “radical coalition”, however, did not. The most Left-wing faction of Syriza, a hard-Left party within the party, decided to break away.

Twenty nine MPs headed by the Communist former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, formed the new Popular Unity party to contest new elections after Tsipras resigned to let the population make their decision on his U-turn. The people had to choose: between the hard-Left populist who had, just months before, promised them everything but veered, almost immediately, toward the centre; and the purists who had remained true and set up their own party.

They chose. Tsipras was returned with almost double the seats of his nearest challenger, New Democracy. The Popular Unity party failed to make the threshold for even a single MP in parliament.

And that was the end of Syriza’s hard-Left project.

*          *          *

It is said that all parties campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Simply put: it is easy to promise the earth when you don’t have to deliver. But what makes Syriza’s story so remarkable, and instructive, is the degree of change the party underwent and how quickly it did so – and, critically, how it has continued to do so. Syriza today is essentially a party of social democrats. It is PASOK Mark II.

The extent to which Tsipras abandoned everything is hard to exaggerate. Take the hated ENFIA property tax. This is a tax levied on homes that is so high it has essentially pauperised a large percentage of the property-owning class. Tsipras promised to abolish it. The Troika refused to allow him to do so. But, crucially, he has continued to keep it to this day, even as Greece has exited its Troika-funded bailout.

It’s a great source of income – and governments run on income, of which a sufficient amount is always hard to find. Populist bombast runs on air, which is available far more freely.

In the words of Stathis Kalyvas, Gladstone Professor of Government at All Souls, Oxford: “It is of course possible that a populist leader proves electorally successful (Orbán, Erdogan). But not because of radicalism: radical economic proposals simply do not work: there is nothing to deliver. And that was the case in Greece.”

Now Greece is facing elections next year and the centre-Right New Democracy party looks favourite to win. Meanwhile, Tsipras has come to be seen as a pragmatic politician by both the EU and, to make matters worse, for someone who was once such a strong “anti-imperialist”, the US.

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The political battle raging in Greece right now is the deal with neighbouring Macedonia in which Tsipras has agreed not to veto the country’s membership of NATO and the EU if it changes its name to “North Macedonia”. The political issue is that the name “Macedonia” implies a territorial claim on Greece; the larger cultural one is that it implies that Alexander the Great was not Greek but Macedonian. The majority of Greeks oppose the deal while the EU and US support it to strengthen NATO in the Balkans as a counterweight to Chinese and Russian influence there.

Aris Hatzis, an Athens University law professor and political commentator, was recently quoted in the FT as saying: “Tsipras is determined to complete the… agreement even if there are political costs. It would cement his transformation over the past three years from radical leftist politician to a Western partner who can deliver both on foreign affairs and the economy.”

He was right. From hard-Left firebrand to centre-Left darling of two of the world’s greatest hegemons, the transformation is complete – and total.

We live in the age of populism; the rejection of the expert and of the ‘elites’. Technology that balkanises our information environment furthers political divides through subverting nuance and discussion in favour of sensationalism, which enables extreme parties on both Left and Right. Never has the post-war political climate in the West been more fecund for demagogues. What Greece shows, however, is that hard-Left populist parties are not fit for purpose. Syriza promised to end austerity, take on the EU and various other delusions. It failed on every single one of its hard-Left populist policies. Corbyn’s Labour party is already disaster-prone and riddled with chaos. Greece should be seen as a lesson.

As Kalyvas concludes: “Radical-left populism is pretty much dead in Greece and has morphed into the old, clientelist socialist party. I don’t think it could have been otherwise. Radical leftist plans have a way of being always unworkable.”