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Syriza’s path to electoral victory was largely cleared by the demise of Pasok, Greece’s social democratic party. From 160 seats three years ago, Pasok’s sign-off on the EU bailout conditions proved to be political suicide and they are now the smallest party in parliament. This phenomenon – the rapid capitulation of a social democratic heavyweight in times of austerity – has been called ‘Pasokification’ by James Doran, and it’s a trend we may well see beyond Greece.
1. Austerity isn’t popular in the UK either.
Pasok, the Greek equivalent of the Labour party, still has 13 MPs. Even the most extreme austerity measures will not kill off traditional social democratic parties. But it will prevent them being parties of government in their own right as they are challenged by more radical socialist parties. For example: in Spain, PSOE’s chance of forming a government may hinge on a coalition with Podemos.
As Aditya Chakrabortty says, the fate of Pasok is an outlier, not an anomaly. By talking about Pasokification of the UK Labour Party, we’re not saying the party is threatened with overnight extinction if it implements austerity as a governing party – just that by fronting up cuts that hit its base, it could face splits and a sharp loss of votes.
Those loyal to the direction Labour is headed in point to the electoral considerations: if Labour says ‘no cuts’, it will lose votes. But Labour went into the 2010 general election promising ‘cuts worse than Thatcher’ and could not hold onto office.
2. Pasokification is happening to Labour in Scotland.
Austerity in the UK might not be as harsh as in Greece, but it is already affecting sections of the population in ways which are relevant to Labour’s future electoral success. Cuts to public spending, and the squeeze on incomes across the public and private sector, have been opposed by Labour’s leadership. But during the independence referendum in Scotland, the party failed to distinguish itself from the coalition parties as part of the Better Together campaign.
The SNP has opportunistically yet successfully portrayed itself as the replacement for Labour as the opposition to both the Tories and those aspects of New Labour (privatisation and war) that led to the party losing support across the UK. The official Yes campaign, along with the Radical Independence Campaign, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat: parties that spoke in favour of independence and against austerity have seen a significant surge in membership.
If a minority Labour government or Labour-LibDem coalition results from the general election, it will face an opposition divided between unequivocally pro-austerity parties (the Tories and UKIP). and an overt anti-austerity alliance of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens.
3. Labour party unity ends after the election.
There’s a divide within Labour over its institutional funding by affiliated trade unions – between socialists who defend the link and social democrats who wouldn’t mind seeing Labour become the equivalent of the US Democrats, a party completely detached from association with trade unionism. The Falkirk selection in 2013, when the Labour leader called the cops over false accusations Unite was trying to stitch up the replacement for Eric Joyce, marked the start of a renewed battle over the party’s direction. Unite, cleared of any wrong-doing, chose to allow the parliamentary leadership to change the rules on union funding of the party at a special conference last year.
Ed Miliband’s leadership has been compromised from the start. A majority of the parliamentary party wanted his brother, David Miliband, to become leader – continuity New Labour. It was Ed’s pitch to Labour-affiliated trade union members that gave him the decisive edge over his brother. But to lead the parliamentary party without being toppled, he’s had to condemn workers striking against cuts.
When the election is over, Unite will hold a rules conference on the question of Labour Party affiliation. The debate is sure to spread to other affiliated unions in light of an incumbent Labour government continuing with austerity.
4. Only a minority of Labour candidates have a clue how to avoid Pasokification.
Miliband’s most popular moment as Labour leader has been his pledge to freeze energy prices – but to go further, and follow public opinion by supporting renationalisation of utilities and public transport, would finish him as leader.
Whatever happens in May, there is one certainty: the parliamentary Labour Party will remain dominated by conservatives. What isn’t certain is how vulnerable a Labour government or coalition will be to backbench rebellion – or how rebels will relate to the debate on Labour affiliation.
Immediately after Syriza’s victory in Greece, 15 Labour MPs issued a call for the party to change course on cuts, privatisation, and Britain’s anti-union laws. This will have been ignored by the leadership as the usual suspects, but it reflects wider unease on Labour’s backbenches and amongst its prospective parliamentary candidates.
5. There is demand for an English version of Syriza.
The #GreenSurge is more than a clever social media campaign. It represents an enormous growth in membership for a party that has only one MP in the UK parliament. Labour will have to respond in the same way that the Tories have to their main challenger, Ukip.
For many in the party, however, it will be easy to write off the Greens’ jump in support as people who are ‘too posh to vote Labour’. The formal response will be to attack policies like the basic income as unaffordable and present the Greens as the new LibDems – promising all things to all people, but being unable to deliver.
The impact of the Greens on Labour is likely to be minimal because of tactical anti-Tory voting. But the share of the vote going to Green candidates is certain to improve. The electoral intervention of smaller formations that are pitched as more radical than both Labour and the Greens, such as TUSC and Left Unity, will result in very few saved deposits, but will have significance beyond the general election because both are predicated on the strength of coalition. And Syriza is, after all, the ‘Coalition of the Radical Left’.
What all of this shows is that there is an appetite for anti-austerity radicalism – and if, like Pasok, an alternative is unable to come through Labour, then it will emerge elsewhere in the course of the next few years.