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What is Syriza? The answer's more complicated than you think

Beyond the famous few, who are they? Michael Chessum meets the Syriza grassroots.

Looking at most mainstream coverage of the Greek crisis and Sunday’s referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking that Greece’s governing party was composed entirely of Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis.

 Behind the lazy tropes about Greek laziness and the treasure trove of clichés taken out of posh journalists’ high school classics lessons – the birthplace of democracy, the authentic home of tragedy – most coverage has portrayed the crisis merely in terms of a series of high-level jousting matches between Syriza’s celebrities, Angela Merkel and some EU and IMF bureaucrats from central casting.

The reality of the situation in Greece is very different – because Syriza is not like any establishment political party in Europe. It is a relatively new organisation, which in 2007 got just 5 per cent of the vote – but much more importantly, it has real internal democracy and is deeply rooted in the social movements of the past few years. Before they were elected, a large proportion of its politicians were ordinary citizens, who came to politics out of a sense of duty rather than ambition. Despite laboured attempts to portray the leadership of Syriza as lone actors – including by the Greek press – they are perhaps some of the most accountable politicians in Europe.

The level of internal democracy in Syriza adds a whole new dimension of tactical intrigue to negotiations with Greece’s creditors. Earlier this week, when Tsipras wrote a series of letters to Greece’s creditors apparently surrendering to the bulk of its conditions, he could be sure not only that the Eurozone would reject the proposal prior to the referendum, but also relatively sure that there was a double-lock against such a substantial retreat – the fact that the party’s base would not allow him to do it. As it was, the letters did not consummate a retreat (at least for the moment), and served to illustrate the intransigence of Schauble and Merkel.

These are calculations and dynamics with which Syriza’s activist base is constantly grappling. When I interviewed Petros Markopoulos and George Diakos on Thursday, both activists in Syriza Youth, any questions about internal discord or discussion were secondary to the almighty ground war for the No campaign. But the recent letters, and the negotiation concessions made by the Syriza leadership, have clearly been a subject of discussion.

“You have to show the people, not the ones who are already convinced to vote No, but the ones who are afraid and in the middle, that you’re not getting out of the negotiations – that the referendum is a matter of strengthening your position in the negotiations,” says Markopoulos. When I push him on whether the letter was acceptable to activists, he replies that “as a tactical move, it is – but we expect something better than it.” Diakos adds the crucial point: “After the referendum, the atmosphere will be completely different.”

The ability of Syriza’s grassroots to influence the more day-to-day business of government is a work in progress, but there are certainly ways in which it has leverage. When Yanis Varoufakis, the now-departed finance minister who is not technically a member of the Party, appointed an adviser who was part of a neo-liberal banking policy in Peru, there was an outcry and the adviser stepped down. A Syriza student activist reminds me that when Yiannis Panousis, a Syriza minister, authorised the police to invade the University of Athens (in Greece, universities are legal asylums and police are usually banned from entering) in order to evict an occupation staged by an anarchist group earlier this year, Syriza Youth called on the minister to resign, although for the moment he remains in post.

It is not lost on many activists that the question of how and how much Syriza’s party membership can order its ministers around is really just the latest chapter in a long history of insurgent movements that have found themselves in government. As Markopoulos puts it: “Because we’re new to government, the boundaries between party, government and state are not clear.” As well as spending its first five months in office fighting Greece’s creditors, Syriza is also pioneering a “new methodology of working”, re-casting the relationship between the government, the state and social movements. “You want to have control over the government, but you also need to be distinct from the government, you don’t want to be incorporated into the state.”

For the bulk of the European media covering Greece’s current crisis, the power and dynamism of Syriza’s grassroots – incomplete and developing though its everyday leverage may be – is not only incomprehensible, but subversive and threatening. What it represents is a new kind of politics – one which has swept to power not only in Greece but also across Spain and beyond.

As well as an outright rejection of neo-liberalism and a radical policy platform, all of these new movements are really about the future of democracy. Where the old politics could be understood in terms of high-level briefings from machine politicians and robotic advisers, the people who have called the shots and done the groundwork in Syriza are teachers, unemployed people, waiters and electricians – and it is from this fact that it derives its strength. As the crisis of European democracy rolls on, everyone – the media, the political establishment, the wider European left, and Tsipras himself – would do well to remember that. 

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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.