Golden Dawn’s third place in the polls is not all it seems

The party is only third because of the collapse of others around it.

Polls in Greece show the far-right Golden Dawn party would come third were an election held tomorrow. The party’s policies include putting landmines on the Greek border to kill illegal immigrants, and its logo is a Hellenised swastika. The country’s Prime Minister and BBC journalists alike have drawn chilling parallels between the rise of Golden Dawn and the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.

There’s no doubt that Golden Dawn’s mere presence in the Greek Parliament is a worrying development. But the “Golden Dawn is in third place” headline – which has now spread like wildfire through commentary about the situation in Greece – doesn’t quite capture the full picture.

The party may be in third place, but not as a result of any huge growth in support since the last election: in the 2012 elections Golden Dawn ended up with 6.9 per cent and came fifth. Since the election, they have only seen a modest increase of about 3 per cent on that figure, to 9.2 per cent.

The party is only third because of the collapse of others around it. PASOK, which won 43.9 per cent of the vote and a majority in 2009 under George Papandreou, is now on 7.2 per cent after betting the farm on the Trokia’s austerity. Its votes are now mainly split between Syriza and New Democracy.

The story is similar with the Greek Communist Party (KKE): after pursuing a disastrous anti-coalition strategy in 2012, the KKE, recently third-placed itself, has lost most of its votes to Syriza. Likewise, the centre-right, anti-bailout Independent Greeks, which beat Golden Dawn in 2012, has seen its vote drain away both to New Democracy’s promised renegotiation of austerity and Syriza's anti-bailout pole of attraction.

Is it worrying that Golden Dawn has got to where it is? Absolutely. But third place is a lot less impressive than it used to be in Greece.

The party’s poll position also fails to capture the disappearance of the old main far-right party, Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). LAOS were the main anti-immigration party before they joined the pro-bailout coalition government in November 2011, a decision which wiped them off the map politically.

To be sure, Golden Dawn are much nastier than LAOS: where Golden Dawn want to put landmines on the border, LAOS wanted to end all migration from outside the EU and deport many immigrants who were already in Greece – familiar demands from far-right parties across Europe.

But the disappearance of LAOS, which took 5.6 per cent in the 2009 elections, and the sudden emergence of Golden Dawn on 6.9 per cent in 2012, suggests a fairly direct transfer of votes between the two parties.

The number of voters willing to vote for a party of the far-right has gradually crept up as Greek society disintegrates, but an increase from 5.6 per cent to a notional 9.2 per cent over three years of human catastrophe is hardly meteoric, and should be viewed in perspective.

This analysis isn’t meant to denigrate those who repeat that Golden Dawn are now in third place without explaining its context. With honourable exceptions, the human tragedy that is unfolding in Greece is horrendously under-reported: an eye catching headline or two to draw attention to the folly of what is being imposed on the Greeks can only be a good thing.

The leader of Golden Dawn, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, speaks during a press conference at an Athens hotel. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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