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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser