Greece heads to the polls

A hair's-breadth victory for the right is predicted, but time will tell.

The Greek polls have opened, and will stay open until around 4pm British time, with the first exit polls being released around 6:30. Although opinion polling isn't allowed in the country in the two weeks leading up to the election, various organisations have been conducting their own private polls, many of which reportedly point to the conservative New Democrats winning by a hair's breadth.

There are still a number of undecideds in the Greek electorate, however, and analysis has been devoted to trying to determine what is likely to swing them. Some jokingly suggest that the results of Saturday's football match against Russia (which Greece won in a surprise 1-0 result) may lead to the Greeks feeling more emboldened to elect a candidate who will stand up to Europe; others that it may make them feel better about the whole situation and just want to play along.

Something which may have a real effect on the polls was suggested by Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal: taxes. Owing to the backwards nature of the Greek tax system (which still involves paying much of the bills in person with cash), the caretaker government hasn't levied any taxes in the run-up to the election. But they are widely expected to be raised in the next couple of days, which means many Greeks are heading to their accountants:

Okay, so in the past several days people have begun preparing their post-election taxes, and they've been hit with sticker shock. The new austerity reforms have seen some major increases in tax bills for the average Greek... sometimes to the tune of 300-400 per cent, according to one person familiar with the intricacies of it all.

This has got people particularly angry, and it could be this trend which causes people at the last second to turn away from [the leader of the New Democrats, Antonis] Samaras with disgust, and vote for [the leader of the SYRIZA, Alexis] Tsipras.

Many in the European establishment see the election of Tsipras as the worst case scenario for Greece, fearing that it will lead him and Angela Merkel to enter into a game of chicken which will result in Greece being ejected from the euro. But the Financial Times is reporting that one even worse outcome may be about to occur; a hung parliament:

Private opinion polls showed that none of the parties would win a parliamentary majority. The centre-right New Democracy party had a three-point lead over the radical left Syriza coalition, but neither party would capture even 30 per cent of the vote, according to two private polls seen by the FT. . .

A delay in forming a coalition, or in the worst case, a recourse to a third election if negotiations fail, could cause Greek public finances to collapse. Officials at the finance ministry said last week that unless a delayed €1bn tranche of EU-IMF funding is paid, funds to pay pensions and public sector wages would be exhausted by July 20.

The World Bank's outgoing head, Rober Zoellick, has told the Observer that Europe is one step away from a "Lehmans moment", but much of his criticism was focused on the deleterious effects of uncertainty in Europe on developing nations. That uncertainty will either be cleared up, or magnified greatly, by events today.

Polling slips for the two main parties, SYRIZA and New Democracy, in a polling station in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.