Can Europe Make It?

Why Jeremy Corbyn is not Alexis Tsipras

Those who think that Jeremy Corbyn could turn the Labour party into a British Syriza should think again.

Vassilis Petsinis
20 October 2015

Jeremy Corbyn at a Greece Solidarity Campaign rally. Demotix/P Nutt. All rights reserved.The recent assumption of the Labour Party's leadership by Jeremy Corbyn triggered a string of reactions in Britain and all over Europe. Certain commentators, as well as various sections of the European left, greeted the ascension of an alleged 'dark horse' to Labour's leadership with satisfaction.

The victory of a new leader with the ambition to refashion Britain's main opposition party towards a more left-leaning orientation was seen as a genuine sign that a considerable chunk of the British electorate has grown weary of David Cameron's austerity policies.

Some went a step further and assessed that Jeremy Corbyn's victory reflects a Europe-wide resentment towards the insistence on austerity and the ongoing reduction of the welfare state. In the other end of the spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn's critics rushed to judge that his victory may render Labour 'unelectable', largely as result of the new leader's alleged radical leftist sympathies.

Within the broader context of this debate, both sympathizers and critics were quick to draw tentative comparisons between the new Labour leader and other political figures in contemporary Europe. Greece's Prime Minister and SYRIZA leader, Alexis Tsipras, has often been regarded as a popular politician with whom Jeremy Corbyn might claim parallel lives. Some of the new Labour leader's critics have gone as far as to assert that Jeremy Corbyn may transform the party into a 'SYRIZA-on-the-Thames' in the long run.

They have also hinted at Alexis Tsipras' failure to project an anti-model to austerity and mobilize European citizens behind his banner. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn's, as well as Alexis Tsipras', proponents have interpreted the new Labour leader's success as an indication that the Greek Prime Minister's 'brave stand' against the neoliberal order was not in vain.

In their view, Alexis Tsipras' defiance paved the way to more drastic developments in one of the key global actors such as Britain. On the one hand, external observers should not overlook certain commonalities that these two politicians share.

On the other hand, one should not go as far as to disregard essential differences between Alexis Tsipras' and Jeremy Corbyn's patterns of policy-making. The same thing is equally valid in regards to the distinctive differences between the Greek and British political cultures.

Jeremy Corbyn as a prospective blueprint of Alexis Tsipras? Think more carefully

Greece's Alexis Tsipras and other representatives of the European left (e.g. Pablo in Spain) rejoiced at the news of Jeremy Corbyn's success. A charismatic young politician himself, the SYRIZA leader shares quite a few political principles and values with Corbyn.

Since he commenced his involvement in politics, the current Greek Prime Minister has castigated the shrinkage of the welfare state throughout Europe. Furthermore, Alexis Tsipras espouses a foreign policy doctrine of appeasement and equilibrium inside a multipolar world order (e.g. on the latest developments in Syria and the Ukrainian crisis).

An additional, if only by default, shared premise between Corbyn and Tsipras is the way that the latter also took advantage of PASOK's 'Third Way'-like reformation during Costas Simitis' and George A. Papandreou's tenures in office (1996-2009).

In the long run, SYRIZA managed to absorb the main bulk of PASOK's former voters. However, a closer outlook can demonstrate certain qualitative differences between the two cases. In the British case, the Labour leadership's main concern is to win the hearts and minds of a specific target-group: those segments of the British electorate who find themselves in an underprivileged position following a long sequence of relentless neoliberal policies.

In Greece's case, a state-centred and highly clientelistic system of public administration survived well until the outbreak of the financial crisis, despite Costas Simitis' and George A. Papandreou's programmatic declarations on the modernization of the state.

Alexis Tsipras has been contending that SYRIZA echoes the anxieties of the underprivileged strata whose very survival is threatened by austerity. However, a more careful consideration will demonstrate that Alexis Tsipras has equally succeeded in securing the votes of high-ranking employees in the Greek public sector. These former voters of, mainly, PASOK and, to a secondary extent, New Democracy (ND) had managed to consolidate themselves in rather advantageous and privileged positions during the previous decades.

Furthermore, there exist qualitative differences of pivotal significance between the Greek and British political cultures. In the course of SYRIZA's transformation into a wide-reaching coalition (2009-2012), Alexis Tsipras initially succeeded in mounting a broad range of popular grievances against the delegitimized two-party system (i.e. PASOK and ND).

Nevertheless, following SYRIZA's victory in the January 2015 elections, the landscape started becoming much blurrier. Harnessing the objections of the 'patriotic left' and the hard left factions emerged as a simultaneous endeavour of crucial significance for Tsipras in the light of the intensive negotiations with Brussels.

Prior to the SYRIZA phenomenon, Greece's 'patriotic left' always exerted some appeal to certain segments of the society (albeit in a rather incoherent fashion). Meanwhile, the popular appeal of Trotskyists and other sections of the far left has been in constant decline since the 1990s.

Nevertheless, both abovementioned trends enjoyed a disproportional representation in the party-ranks during SYRIZA's first months in the government. This complicated decision-making in questions of major concern (namely, the negotiations with the creditors and the EU) and resulted in the recent departure of the, hard Eurosceptic, Left Platform from the party.

Meanwhile, in Britain, one cannot detect any quasi-nationalist trends even remotely comparable to the Greek 'patriotic left' among Labour's cadres and bases of support. The same thing is valid about the minuscule potential of the hard left, despite the occasional expression of appreciation towards Jeremy Corbyn by George Galloway and other such controversial figures.

Lastly, it seems rather unlikely that the new Labour leader might become as 'situationally adaptive' as to seek political partners in the likes of right-wing populists such as the Independent Greeks' (ANEL) leader, Panos Kammenos. In other words, a comparative Labour-UKIP coalition government would be inconceivable under any context. 

As a final remark, one might argue that Jeremy Corbyn's rise to the party-leadership may provide a useful alibi to Alexis Tsipras if the latter embarks on directing SYRIZA towards a 'new' social democrat orientation with a more acute emphasis on social cohesion and solidarity. Especially in the light of the Left Platform's departure from the party, the very designation 'Coalition of the Radical Left' starts losing much of its initial significance and connotations.

This assessment, however, remains highly subject to the firmer consolidation of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour leader and the extent to which he can succeed in projecting a new paradigm for centre-left parties across the continent. It is also highly dependent on whether Alexis Tsipras keeps on drawing much inspiration from Andreas Papandreou and his populist PASOK in the 1980s (i.e. radical in rhetoric but realist in practice). 

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