Anti-EU graffiti in Athens. Photo: Getty Images
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What Greece needs isn't Grexit, but debt relief

We must learn the lessons from the Jubilee Debt campaign, not heed the calls of a Eurosceptic right and a Trotskyite left, says Richard Howitt MEP.

There's something wrong when the leading Conservative Eurosceptic MEP talks up a 'no' vote in the Greek referendum as "explosive" and a similarly leading UKIP activist in my own region accuses Europe of humiliating the Greek people.

On the day of the Greek referendum, are they really moved by genuine concern about the human suffering caused by the biggest economic contraction in economic history, the slashed wages and pensions, the deepening unemployment?

No. For them, this is not at all about Grexit but Brexit.

Britain's Eurosceptic Right is seizing on this moment because what they want is crisis.

It is the classic Marxist dialectic and - lo and behold - we find the Tory Right quite unashamedly getting in to bed with a leftist party motivated by that very ideology.

Tory politicians who were saying two months ago that Ed Miliband was not trustworthy for British business are suddenly clapping their hands at a Greek Prime Minister who last week called bankers the equivalent of terrorists.

At least Nigel Farage's love affair with Vladimir Putin shields him from the same charge of hypocrisy, when Alexis Tsipras flies off to Moscow and publicly makes excuses for Russian breaches of international law over Ukraine.

But a Tory Party which was prepared to blame Labour in Britain for the entire global financial crisis to secure its own return to power, has another characteristic in common with Syriza in Greece.

Cameron and Tsipras are united that it's always got to be someone else's fault.

So in a week when George Osborne is preparing to announce an austerity budget in Britain with welfare claimants as some of the biggest victims, do not believe the crocodile tears of Tory politicians over Greece this weekend.

How can Labour and our social democratic allies across Europe react, when we are squeezed from the argument by this unholy alliance of extreme left and hard right?

First, that we are the anti-austerity party, not a leftist one based on making excuses for tax evasion and corruption, but one in the mainstream of European social democracy, with an honest prospectus which really is about investment, youth jobs and decent public services.

Second, that we will not use the poor of Greece as pawns in our own political game. Whether Greece ultimately chooses to leave the Euro or not, should surely be determined by what is in the interests of their peoples not ours.

Neither side in Greece says it wants to leave the Euro, and those politicians who try to claim the country may leave the EU altogether are spinning a lie. At best this argument is based on the legalistic interpretation that there is no Treaty provision for leaving the Euro, only the EU itself. But any serious politician understands that a political solution would be found.

Third, we should champion and not be frightened of debt forgiveness. The French economist Thomas Piketty told us at a Progressive Economy Forum in Brussels last week that debt restructuring is now an inevitable part of the solution. The IMF's own leaked report of last Friday said the same.

Many of us were activists in the Jubilee Debt campaign and, although the roots of the current crisis are very different, when debt itself becomes the greater problem, politicians have to be prepared to address greater solutions.

Remember that today Greece does enjoy a current surplus, but that is the country's historic debt which is making the economic situation unsustainable.

Fourth, we should deal directly rather than indirectly with the humanitarian consequences of the current crisis, revising the solidarity grant on low pensions, to ensure protection of the poorest pensioners and their families.

It was deeply shocking that Greek pensioners were not able to withdraw from bank machines this week, but tourists with international bank cards were. Instead surely we should be putting money in?

And fifth, we should nail the lie that this is only about Europe. It is a serious risk that Greece dropping out of the Euro will lead to 'contagion,' with other weaker economies falling over like dominoes.  But if the Eurozone members haven't made equally serious contingency plans to avoid this event by now, then it is they who will be at fault.

But their failure would never be Britain's success. One million British tourists go to Greece every year.  British banks have £7 billion in Greek debt, multiplied many times further by holdings in European banks who have much more. 

Even George Osborne admits a Eurozone collapse would be devastating for Britain - although it's a pity Tory divisions over Europe don't let his colleagues see the same.

For Labour, to our allies in the trade unions, we should ask them to be careful not to romanticise the far left. The choice in the referendum in Greece today is probably one between accepting an austerity package which will doubtless have further catastrophic consequences for jobs and services in the country; or in accelerating a return to the drachma and a consequent devaluation which could inflict just as much misery on the living standards of the Greek people.

And Syriza should never be forgiven for going in to coalition with a far-right, nationalist party, in order to attain power.

There may be a choice on the ballot paper, but there will be no winners in today's referendum.

Finally, there is a further parallel between the global banking collapse and today's Greek crisis. 

Both Alistair Darling in 2008 and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi in 2012 used the explicit words that they were prepared to do "whatever it takes."

What they were referring to was stopping bank collapse.  Today's political debate is still about using public funds to bailout private banks, much more than about aid to Greece or its people.

It is a huge dilemma for democratically elected politicians that banking is an essential prerequisite for a successful economy but that - eight years after Lehman Brothers folded - reforms to banking rules still leave banks themselves 'too big to fail.'

Just as with dodgy American financial derivatives, it was the private banks who chose to lend to Greece and who clearly failed to adequately assess the risk of that lending or the consequences of it failing.

And just as in the global financial crisis, it is ordinary people who are suffering, and those responsible for the crisis who are least suffering its consequences.

So I will be following the results tonight along with everyone else, but new international action on debt and bank reform provide the true answer, not nationalist or Eurosceptic responses from the right.

Photo:Getty
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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.