Syriza members wave flags and banners. Photo: Getty Images
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After Syriza's failure, where next for the Left?

The failure of Alexis Tsipras leaves the Left at a crossroads. Where do we go from here? Michael Chessum writes from Greece.

Two weeks ago, DEA, the Trotskyist group that helped establish Syriza and is now a key part of its Left Platform faction, held a central committee meeting. The meeting proceeded under the premise that a new memorandum was about to be signed by Tsipras, signalling a surrender to Greece’s creditors and crossing a red line which neither DEA nor many other Syriza activists could endorse. Two days later, the referendum was called, and DEA put aside its misgivings and threw itself into a gigantic united Oxi campaign. 

But the conversations held in DEA, and in all manner of smaller groups which constitute Syriza’s left wing will be relevant again now. The content of the Memorandum going through the Greek parliament today is worse than anything previously imagined: unprecedented privatisation, loss of sovereignty, the forcible reversal of progressive measures introduce by the government, hikes in VAT, cuts and free market reforms. In the early hours of Saturday morning, the DEA’s MP was one of only two MPs in the Syriza parliamentary group to vote against the initial capitulation sent by Tsipras to the Eurogroup; today, a much greater rebellion is anticipated.

The scale of the surrender and the absurdity of the political situation may be a little overwhelming for an outside observer, but this is a moment for which many on the Greek far left have been practically preparing about for months, and theorising about for years. Most thought that Tsipras would sell out sooner. In explaining why he didn’t buckle in the last round of negotiations, and pushed on for the referendum, everyone - from party activists to the anarchists you meet in social centres - cite popular pressure.

Syriza’s right wing - a collection of politicians such as the Deputy Prime Minister Dianis Dragasakis and economy minister Georgis Stakathis – initially opposed the calling of the referendum. But the result has by coincidence played a pivotal role in their strategy: it took the energy and public pressure, formulated it around what was essentially a confidence vote in the government which the left had to rally around, and delivered what could be interpreted as a mandate for a new deal to keep Greece in the Euro and the government in power, at any cost.

Tsipras has essentially fallen in with this logic, and the sudden shift in Tsipras’s political role has left some Syriza supporters disoriented, as well as burned out from the referendum campaign. At an anti-Memorandum protest on the steps of the parliament on Monday night, one Syriza activist described him to me as a “victim” of the current situation who was “detached from reality by those around him”. How long this patience lasts remains to be seen.
For the vast majority of people we’ve met, the referendum gave precisely the opposite mandate: that Greece would not accept austerity, or at least nothing like what is now being proposed. They have a point: Syriza won the January election on the slogan “no sacrifice for the Euro”; it then won a 61 per cent majority for rejecting a deal whose core terms - and many other terms which are far, far worse - are now being rammed through the Greek parliament. Popular pressure will be in full swing again today, as a massive strike of Greek workers by calls on parliament to reject the Memorandum.

The strategy of Syriza in power has been consumed by the task of finding a deal: as many party supporters complain, it has been slow or absent in enacting many of the social reforms and tax policies it promised. The Tsipras administration has refused – either in terms of technical measures or in terms of making a political case – to prepare the ground for a Grexit, and the government continues to cling to the idea of a Euro membership compatible with its mandate, even as it is driven humiliatingly off a cliff. Those Syriza MPs that vote for another memorandum do so on the basis that rupture with the Eurozone – and further confrontation with the right in Greece – should be delayed. That delay is now turning into a permanent retreat.

This week may well witness the destruction, from the European left’s point of view, of the most promising political project on the continent.  Whether or not Tsipras remains Prime Minister, the Syriza government has already fallen. It has been replaced by a new parliamentary majority, composed of some Syriza MPs and the whole of the old, and supposedly vanquished, political order – Pasok and New Democracy.

For all that this may be tragic, it could also be part of a process. The internal fight, or externalised split, that is to come will expose some of the contradictions in Syriza’s strategy and open up windows, at least in theory, for a set of political forces to Tsipras’s left. The prospects for the factional struggle inside Syriza is difficult to predict, partly because the internal structures of Syriza have been functioning so unreliably since it took power (the Central Committee last met months ago and has focussed entirely on reviewing rather than determining government decisions), and partly because of the uncertainties about the fate of dissident MPs and activists, whose expulsions and resignations hang in the balance.

Whatever the outcome, what happens next in and around Syriza matters. Both the mainstream media and many on the British left have focussed obsessively on the party’s relationship with the EU and the Euro, but this is less than half of the story. Projects like Syriza were supposed to represent the future of the European left, with their unflinchingly radical programme, openness to social movements and internal democracy. Tsipras’s failure has stemmed not just from his unwillingness to break with the Eurozone, but with his refusal to contemplate the radical measures that it would have necessitated: the nationalisation of the banks, seizure of assets and a massive redistributive tax programme. The route to rebuilding the dreams that Syriza represented – in Greece and elsewhere –will lie in reclaiming the radical and democratic spirit that once characterised it.  

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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