Alexis Tsipras in Athens, January 2015. Photo: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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Never mind the Euro: Syriza's win could threaten mainsteam politics across Europe

New Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras may be the man who consigns centrist politics to history.

When Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras first surged in the opinion polls in 2012, many in the eurozone feared that his election would destroy Europe’s economic order by forcing Greece to give up its currency. Three years on, the talk is of a political rather than an economic domino effect. Now that Tsipras has been inaugurated as Greek prime minister, it seems he could be the man to save the euro by allowing it to adjust its economic policies, upending the continent’s established political order in the process.

A couple of years ago I watched Tsipras introduce himself to the American foreign policy elite. “We are psychologically prepared for a clash,” he told a startled audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, “because in politics there is no such thing as tea and crumpets: there are interests that are conflicting with each other.”

The clash is now real: battle lines are drawn between Syriza and the eurozone. The party has set out a trifecta of goals: a €2bn welfare programme, an attack on “antisocial oligarchs” and a write-down of at least half of Greece’s public debt. At the same time, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, leader of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, is already warning about the dangers of not sticking to prior agreements.

There is a danger of miscalculation because both sides think they have the upper hand. When I saw Tsipras speak, he said: “If Greece was not in the eurozone, I have no doubt that nobody would care about Greece’s situation. [But] Greece is one of the links that make up the eurozone. And if one breaks, it won’t only be bad for the link, it’ll be bad for the entire chain. We know this, and our friends in Germany know this as well.”

On the other hand, the consensus in Berlin is that the fallout from a Grexit could be contained. There is now a bailout fund for sovereign nations and a European banking union. Private banks have divested themselves of Greek debt and the markets seem becalmed.

Most analysts think there is a deal to be made by extending the length of the debt, lowering interest rates and offering more flexibility on social spending. When I spoke to a political friend in Greece who strongly opposed Syriza, even he had to concede that Tsipras had a better chance of getting a good deal than Samaras and the mainstream parties. “If he gets some resources to alleviate poverty and a symbolic way to escape the clutches of the Troika, he will be able to sell an agreement. Berlin, on the other hand, has to be very careful. Imagine if there was a Greek exit as a result of confrontation with Germany. There would be uproar across Europe.”

The markets appear to agree. Economic commentators, from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian, seem to think that Syriza could save the euro by tempering Berlin’s self-defeating austerity.

Mainstream social democrats – including the prime ministers of France and Italy – hope to use Tsipras’s victory to persuade Angela Merkel to agree a settlement that caters to Europe’s social problems and helps avoid deflation. For much of Europe, the biggest danger of the Syriza win is less the collapse of the euro than the collapse of mainstream politics.

Tsipras’s election – and the annihilation of the once-dominant PASOK, which scraped barely 5 per cent in the election – is part of a larger trend of political fragmentation in which Europe’s established parties have been crowded out by insurgents from the left and the right. The most immediate challenge will be in Spain, with the emergence of Podemos, the Latin American-inspired party founded in 2014 with a mission “to stop Spain being a colony of Germany and the Troika”.

José Ignacio Torreblanca, who is writing a book about Podemos, thinks it significant that Syriza immediately went into alliance with the right rather than exploring alliances with centrist forces. “It shows that their goal is to change the axis of political competition from left v right to one that pits Europe against the nation,” he says. Torreblanca fears that Tsipras’s victory opens the door to a clash of populisms, with the anti-solidarity right rising in Germany, Finland, Austria and Sweden to counter southern populists of the left.

Last year’s European elections pitted insurgent parties (Ukip, Syriza, the Front National) against the technocratic elite who have driven the EU for the past few decades. But if the mainstream parties fail to find a way of reinventing themselves, politics in Europe may soon move beyond a battle between populism and technocracy.

Alexis Tsipras may be the bearer of a new settlement that confronts populism with populism, leaving the established centrist parties on the scrapheap of history. 

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

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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