How the people of Poland are kept from taking to the streets

While Poland loves to boast about westerners coming to earn money, it is less open about those from the eastern part of the continent. Propaganda serves to justify almost anything.

Anyone who wants to learn about the current economic situation in Poland will encounter curiously contradictory accounts. In the Polish mainstream media, only one image emerges: Poland has growth, has avoided the financial crisis and is up to its ears with new investment, of which the tacky skyscrapers rising up in Warsaw are proof.

Take a closer look – the investment was mostly in roads and stadiums for the Euro 2012 football championship which are now mostly unused and loss-making, while schools, libraries and school canteens are being closed. Health care is free only in theory – if you can’t pay the monthly insurance or are on benefits, it is restricted or has to be paid for. Donald Tusk and his neoliberal party, Civic Platform, have raised the pension age from 65 to 67 and recently, “to fight the crisis”, abolished the eight-hour working day. Last but not least, if it was a prospering country would two million of its people be economic emigrants?

It is true that so far Poland has introduced few overt austerity measures, benefiting from a strong industrial base closely connected to Germany, EU investment and less “financialisation” than, say, the Baltic states. However, if Poland were a land of milk and honey, the migrants would be returning after raising some money. They aren’t. So, instead, the Polish press runs frequent articles bemoaning how Spaniards, Portuguese and other citizens of crisis-ridden European countries are coming to the country to get a job – although the numbers are tiny compared to the volume of those emigrating.

While Poland loves to boast about westerners coming to earn money, it is less open about those from the eastern part of the continent: Roma, Chechens and Ukrainians are treated as second-class citizens. In Białystok, in north-eastern Poland, violent attacks on Roma camps and houses are common. A recent court case ruled that the swastika, written on the city walls and worn by neo-fascists, is legal because “it’s a famous Asian symbol of happiness”.

If the right has radicalised since the Smolensk plane crash, which killed 93 officials, including the president and many MPs, then the left is in a state of decrepitude. A “tenants’ movement” fights the evictions that blight the country and there was a very small Occupy movement. At a recent “congress of the left”, there was talk of “learning from the right” and an “alliance with the middle classes”. Yet the only large party of the left, the Democratic Left Alliance, formed by the ex-communist nomenklatura and the governing party in the 1990s and early 2000s, was reduced to 8.24 per cent of the vote in the last election. Even the recent self-immolation of a 56-year-old man in front of the prime minister’s office in protest against his and many others’ impoverishment didn’t especially shake the public. Nor did his subsequent death.

What has? When public transport fares in Warsaw went up by 60 per cent, there were protests and a petition demanding the resignation of the city’s Civic Platform mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz. But Poland is not yet taking a cue from the Brazilian protests – which, with their focus on hikes in transport fares and the costs of hosting the World Cup, resemble the problems Poland had after Euro 2012.

Here in Poland, propaganda serves to justify almost anything Civic Platform does – especially as we are ritually menaced with the possible comeback of the Law and Justice party. Split between neoliberals and rightwing populists, the people of Poland are successfully kept from taking to the streets.

The Warsaw skyline. Photograph: Getty Images

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer publishing in Polish and English in many publications in the UK and in Poland, including the Guardian, Frieze and The Wire. Her main interest is (post) communist Eastern Europe, its history, society, art. She's finishing a book on postcommunism called Poor But Sexy for Zero Books. She lives in London and has a blog.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation