Could Labour be more like Syriza?

The big question is whether Labour can rise to the challenge, accept the enormity of the changes needed and put forward a compelling vision for the future. The alternative may well be "Pasokification".

Doreen Massey Michael Rustin
19 February 2015

Flickr/UweHiksch. Some rights reserved.

For the first time since the financial crisis of 2007-8, there are now signs of an awakening of popular opposition from the left in Europe – the electoral success of Syriza in Greece and the rise of Podemos in Spain being the most obvious examples.

For very a long time, despite an epochal economic crisis, the left has looked weak. Across Europe, social democratic parties have become part of the establishment. They have accepted the idea that there is only one – neoliberal – way of running the economy: that economics is a technical matter, outside politics. The Greek social democrats of Pasok have now paid the price for their government’s support for neoliberal solutions to the financial crisis brought about by neoliberalism. Spain’s socialists may face a similar fate at the end of the year.

One of Syriza’s greatest achievements is that it has succeeded in showing that an alternative is possible; it has finally led to a real debate over austerity, and opened up economics as a subject for political - as opposed to technical - contestation. The economy has been re-politicised. It is no longer the exclusive preserve of technocratic elites: the possibility that there may be an alternative has been firmly put upon the table. Even within the halls of the establishment, there have been questionings - of a more minor order, but still significant. Mark Carney’s recent criticism of Eurozone austerity policies is just one example.

Compared with the upheavals elsewhere in Europe, the situation here has seemed somewhat tame. Like being marooned, away from the action.

Nonetheless, even here the situation is far from stable. The major political parties have been losing ground for some time, with serious challenges to the Westminster establishment coming from the nationalist movement in Scotland, UKIP and most recently the Green Party.

Amidst these various ‘surges’, is there any hope for Labour? Can the current Labour leadership reconnect with the desires of the majority of its membership and a substantial part of the electorate? Can they set out an election manifesto that clearly defines alternatives to the status quo?

The May election will take place in a period similar to that of the 1970s - when successive governments failed to manage economic and political crisis. This was the period when the old social democratic settlement was unravelling, and no establishment party could find a compelling alternative. First Heath and then Wilson and Callaghan failed to achieve a way out of the morass. We all now know what happened at the end of the decade: Thatcherism took over, and the era of neoliberalism - as we now understand it - began. Now could be a similar moment of change. Can Labour and the left rise to the challenge?

However much one would wish it were otherwise, we believe that a progressive victory in May will not herald a major transformation of politics and society. It could well be more akin to the 1974 election of the Wilson Labour government, though with more cynicism on the part of the voters about what might be achieved. But we also believe that deeper transformation is possible in the longer term. This election is potentially different from those that have occurred since the neoliberal era began: if the left in Europe can show what can be achieved in challenging the dominant common sense, perhaps Labour could learn some lessons (especially if it also learns from Pasok’s collapse).

Labour can only achieve this by thinking beyond short-term battles in swing seats. Electoral politics should never just be about responding to existing political constituencies; instead they should actively seek, through argument and demonstration, to build new ones. The battle, as Thatcher famously recognised, is about the heart and soul.

We believe that it is necessary to develop and put forward systemic alternatives based on avowedly different values, as Syriza has done. Of course the situation in Britain is different from that in Greece. In particular Syriza has grown out of an enviable history of left politics and a wealth of progressive movements that will help sustain it in government. But there is still a potential majority to be won in Britain for a party that poses a realistic alternative and a road map for achieving it. In Soundings and in the After Neoliberalism Manifesto we have been trying to developing such alternative ways of addressing issues – including energy, gender and decentralisation – not least through understanding that how debates are framed is absolutely crucial to the political battle

The challenge, after all these years of neoliberal ascendancy, is to develop ways of thinking and feeling which can bring about connections between different issues and concerns, and identifications between those engaged in pursuing them. A fundamental guiding conception of fairness, equality and ‘deep democracy’ could hold together a wider alliance for change. The task is to create and sustain a new consensus around such values, which elected progressive governments would over time find the confidence to give force to.

All this, of course, would involve facing up to powerful interests. And why not? Labour has shown that it can, sometimes, do just that. Its leader stood up to Rupert Murdoch, prevented a military intervention in Syria, has begun to take on the energy companies, and is now making corporate tax evasion a central issue. These have been striking stances, and we need more of them. Now that a political argument is really opening up, Labour has everything to gain from joining in.


This article is based on arguments from the Kilburn Manifesto. A conference to celebrate the manifesto’s completion takes place this Saturday - 21 February.

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