An anti-austerity demonstration in Lisbon in 2014. Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images
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Why the left is losing the austerity argument

Unlike voters in Greece, Spain or Ireland, the Portuguese are not turning to left-wing parties – even the moderate mainstream left is failing to turn Portugal’s hardships to its advantage.

In a Lisbon hotel, Portuguese nurses sit, waiting to be interviewed for jobs at an NHS trust in the north of England. “The national health service in Portugal is being destroyed,” says Artur Colares, a 45-year-old trauma nurse. “Many medical professionals are choosing to emigrate.”

Portugal’s health service has been battered by deep spending cuts. Nurses have had their salaries frozen, their overtime pay reduced, their promotions halted and their working week increased by five hours with no change in what they earn.

“Nurses are overstretched, exhausted and demoralised,” says José Carlos Martins, the head of the nurses’ union that staged a two-day national strike for better conditions this month. More than 10,000 nurses have emigrated in the past six years, leaving a shortage of 25,000, according to union figures. The flight of medical and other professionals is just one scar left by the recession that Portugal suffered following an economic adjustment programme overseen by the EU and the IMF in return for a €78bn bailout in 2011.

Since then, emigration has risen to levels unknown since the 1960s, with more than 100,000 people leaving each year. Britain is a leading destination for Portuguese emigrants but unlike the previous generations of rural workers who fled, today the migrants include many skilled young graduates who, after years of state-funded education, cannot find a job at home.

A third of those under 25 are unemployed. Half the university graduates under 35 who have a job are estimated to earn less than €900 a month, with one in three earning no more than €600. Aggrieved, they call themselves “the 500 generation”, referring to the monthly minimum wage, which many bring home by working on short contracts in cafés or call centres.

Greece and Spain, where youth unemployment is even higher, bear similar wounds. But unlike voters in these countries – or in Ireland, another bailed-out country – the Portuguese are not turning to left-wing parties such as the Greeks’ Syriza, Podemos in Spain or the anti-austerity Sinn Fein. Even the moderate mainstream left is failing to turn Portugal’s hardships to its advantage.

Less than four months away from a general election, the centre-left Partido Socialista (PS), the main opposition party, had been expected to be leading comfortably in the polls, with its promise to “turn the page on austerity” and put more money in voters’ pockets by reversing public-sector cuts and lowering taxes.

Yet a recent poll showed the PS fewer than 4 points ahead of the two right-of-centre parties in the coalition government that has presided over four years of austerity. Anti-establishment parties of the Podemos or Syriza variety are, in effect, off the radar here. None polls more than 4.5 per cent. On current voting intentions, neither the ruling coalition nor the PS would have enough support to form a majority government.

Pedro Passos Coelho, Portugal’s centre-right prime minister, has been heartened by David Cameron’s election victory in Britain, noting that it was achieved in spite of “difficult and unpopular measures”. The parallels are clear. Passos Coelho’s message, not unlike George Osborne’s, is that austerity works. Over the past four years, Portugal has turned its big current account deficit into a surplus. The economy has been growing for more than a year and is forecast to expand by 1.7 per cent in 2015 while the budget deficit falls below 3 per cent of GDP for the first time in 15 years.

António Costa, who took up the leadership of the PS last year after resigning as mayor of Lisbon, argues that this is only one side of the bailout coin, achieved at the cost of record unemployment, the worst recession in almost half a century and social hardship. Meanwhile, public debt has risen to 130 per cent of GDP, a level considered unsustainable by many economists.

The PS, however, has toned down its message as the stand-off between the Greek government and its creditors brings out the risk-averse side of Portuguese voters. “Passos Coelho’s message to voters is very simple and effective,” writes the political commentator Teresa de Sousa. “Do you want to put all the sacrifices you have made at risk and lose everything?”

Analysts seeking to explain why Portugal is bucking the trend set by other austerity-hit countries in the eurozone also point to the role of the Communist Party, which often polls as high as 10 per cent of the vote, providing a lightning rod for anti-establishment and anti-austerity dissent while remaining too far outside the mainstream to enter government in alliance with the moderate left.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.