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

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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