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
Source: Getty Images

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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.