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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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