Portugal: a case study in the politics of austerity

Portuguese workers face a bleak future but the country's weak, fragmented left has empowered the neo

A worker holds the Portuguese flag during a protest against government austerity measures last week
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Portugal had certainly geared itself up for last Thursday's general strike against the IMF/EU-imposed austerity package. Not long after landing in Lisbon a few days before, I noticed that the city was plastered with colourful banners and posters. "Reject the Pact of Aggression!" bellowed hundreds of Portuguese Communist Party posters; others called for people to "Fight the Austerity Regime." In their preparations for the greve geral, Portugal's trade unions could certainly teach their British counterparts a thing or two.

But - then again - workers in Portugal face an even bleaker future than they do here. Pedro Passos Coelho's right-wing government has extended the working day by half an hour, driven through deep cuts in health and welfare, and is cutting Christmas bonuses for civil servants. That's essentially the thirteenth payment of their annual salaries and, in a country where the minimum wage is just €450 (£386) a month, it makes a big difference. Social gains won over decades are being stripped in weeks and months.

Portugal was the third EU country to be bailed out after Greece and Ireland, and the austerity measures are justified by the terms of the €78bn package. But, as elsewhere, the policies have sucked growth out of the economy. When credit-rating agency Fitch downgraded Portugal's debt to junk status on the same day of the strike, they estimated the economy would contract by 3 per cent next year.

The thousands of strikers who gathered outside the National Assembly on Thursday certainly feel that austerity has gone too far. 'Basta' - 'Enough' - was the most common slogan inscribed on banners. Enraged workers expressed that familiar frustration of the post-Lehman era - why are we being made to pay the bill for someone else's mess? "The poor class and the middle class are being made to pay for this crisis," Maria, a media assistant, told me. "We are spending our money to give to the banks. It's not fair - they're putting it in their pockets." Protesters had a strong sense that they were facing a similar onslaught - differing only in scale - as other Europeans. But there was also deep anger expressed at the Troika enforcing austerity - the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Across the political spectrum, there's a realisation that Portugal has lost much of its sovereignty.

Portugal will be an interesting case study as to just how possible radical neo-liberal policies are in modern democracies. Economists close to the government privately express impatience that "reforms" are not fast or far enough. But their real fear is that the democratic system is on a collision course with what they regard as necessary policies, which - they believe - will prove to be short-term pain for long-term gain.

Maria certainly doesn't expect resistance on the scale of Greece. "We're not such a radical country," she argues. "We're very, very peaceful." While Communists dominate the main trade union federation (the CGTP), union membership is even lower than Britain - running at less than a fifth of workers and, as here, overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector. There have only been two other national strikes in the 37-year history of Portuguese democracy.

But Portugal also has a recent revolutionary tradition. When left-wing army officers toppled António Salazar's authoritarian right-wing 'New State' regime in the 1974 Carnation Revolution, radical politics flourished. "Socialism" was inserted into the constitution, and the first post-Salazar Prime Minister Vasco Gonçalves pledged a "fight to the death against capitalism." Time magazine even fretted that the revolutionary government would "transform Portugal into Western Europe's first Communist nation." It didn't pan out that way, but constitutional clauses forbidding privatisation remained in place as late as 1989.

Many of Thursday's strikers drew on this tradition. "The 25th April forever, liberation from fascism!" was one of the chants, referring to the day that left-wing officers toppled the Salazar regime.

But, as in most other European countries, the left has failed to benefit from the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. In fact, quite the reverse. The June general election was certainly marred by low turnout, suggesting widespread disengagement from the political process. But the right-of-centre social democrats won over half the vote, while the even more right-wing People's Party achieved their best result since 1983. The Socialists were kicked out of office with their worst showing since 1987; though, in any case, they were also committed to radical austerity measures. Meanwhile, the Communist vote stagnated, and the radical Left Bloc lost half their MPs.

It is this weak, fragmented left that offers the best chance of success for radical neo-liberalism in Portugal. Frustration and anger will inevitably escalate further but - unless a coherent alternative emerges to give it political focus - it is unlikely to present a real challenge to austerity. And if that's the case in Portugal, it's just as true everywhere else.

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.