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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. 

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn: “wholesale” EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers

The Labour leader has told Andrew Marr that his party wants to leave the single market.

Mass immigration from the European Union has been used to "destroy" the conditions of British workers, Jeremy Corbyn said today. 

The Labour leader was pressed on his party's attitude to immigration on the Andrew Marr programme. He reiterated his belief that Britain should leave the Single Market, claiming that "the single market is dependent on membership of the EU . . . the two things are inextricably linked."

Corbyn said that Labour would argue for "tarriff-free trade access" instead. However, other countries which enjoy this kind of deal, such as Norway, do so by accepting the "four freedoms" of the single market, which include freedom of movement for people. Labour MP Chuka Umunna has led a parliamentary attempt to keep Britain in the single market, arguing that 66 per cent of Labour members want to stay. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said that "Labour's failure to stand up for common sense on single market will make them as culpable as Tories for Brexit disaster".

Laying out the case for leaving the single market, Corbyn used language we have rarely heard from him - blaming immigration for harming the lives of British workers.

The Labour leader said that after leaving the EU, there would still be European workers in Britain and vice versa. He added: "What there wouldn't be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry." 

Corbyn said he would prevent agencies from advertising jobs in central Europe - asking them to "advertise in the locality first". This idea draws on the "Preston model" adopted by that local authority, of trying to prioritise local suppliers for public sector contracts. The rules of the EU prevent this approach, seeing it as discrimination. 

In the future, foreign workers would "come here on the basis of the jobs available and their skill sets to go with it. What we wouldn't allow is this practice by agencies, who are quite disgraceful they way they do it - recruit a workforce, low paid - and bring them here in order to dismiss an existing workforce in the construction industry, then pay them low wages. It's appalling. And the only people who benefit are the companies."

Corbyn also said that a government led by him "would guarantee the right of EU nationals to remain here, including a right of family reunion" and would hope for a reciprocal arrangement from the EU for British citizens abroad. 

Matt Holehouse, the UK/EU correspondent for MLex, said Corbyn's phrasing was "Ukippy". 

Asked by Andrew Marr if he had sympathy with Eurosceptics - having voted against previous EU treaties such as Maastricht - Corbyn clarified his stance on the EU. He was against a "deregulated free market across Europe", he said, but supported the "social" aspects of the EU, such as workers' rights. However, he did not like its opposition to state subsidy of industry.

On student fees, Corbyn was asked "What did you mean by 'I will deal with it'?". He said "recognised" that graduates faced a huge burden from paying off their fees but did not make a manifesto commitment to forgive the debt from previous years. However, Labour would abolish student debt from the time it was elected. Had it won the 2017 election, students in the 2017/18 intake would not pay fees (or these would be refunded). 

The interview also covered the BBC gender pay gap. Corbyn said that Labour would look at a gender pay audit in every company, and a pay ratio - no one could receive more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee. "The BBC needs to look at itself . . . the pay gap is astronomical," he added. 

He added that he did not think it was "sustainable" for the government to give the DUP £1.5bn and was looking forward to another election.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.