For someone labelled “the most dangerous man in Europe”, Alexis Tsipras was unusually charming to listeners during his appearance at a sold-out event mid-March at the London School of Economics. His aim was to place the radical left-wing movement Syriza, which he leads, in a more reassuring context. After all, he told the audience, outrage at inequality was what motivated two of the LSE’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb (who also co-founded the New Statesman). The “casino capitalism” that precipitated the financial crash of 2008 was not just a problem for the poor; hadn’t the NS’s Peter Wilby, he said, argued in a 2007 column that inequality was “a middle-class issue”, too?
The following night, Tsipras repeated his lecture at the venerable left-wing venue Friends House, this time shifting the emphasis to appeal to a friendlier crowd: more rhetorical attacks on “oligarchs” but carrying the same basic message. For Europe’s elite, the debt and the deficit were never the targets of the austerity programme; rather, the goal was to reduce wages, shrink the welfare state and make the labour market more flexible – “a class-based attack”.
A Syriza government would force lenders to renegotiate the terms of their loans and push for a Europe-wide debt agreement, along the lines of the 1953 London deal that set postwar West Germany on the road to its economic “miracle”.
For Tsipras, who spoke to the NS a few days later, en route to watch Tottenham Hotspur play Fulham at the end of a busy week, the attention he receives is evidence that Syriza is “not just a party with interesting positions, but a force that can bring change to the political landscape of Europe”.
Once an obscure far-left coalition with roots in the alter-globalisation activism of the late 1990s, Syriza rose to prominence after the 2008 crash and came second in the June 2012 elections. Now, tipped to become his country’s next prime minister, Tsipras has been on a speaking tour of Europe and North and South America. He is trying to build a coalition of allies – and, perhaps, to convince the global elite that a Syriza government is not such a terrifying prospect.
The tour has led to accusations that the party is “selling out”, but he disagrees: “Syriza knows what’s at stake and is after a wide consensus for political change in Greece. This is something that departs from the narrow limits of the radical left.”
During his visit to London, Tsipras met senior Labour figures, including Jon Cruddas, who is in charge of the party’s policy review. “I got the impression that the Labour Party today is in soul-searching mode,” he said. “They are one of the few parties so close to power in Europe with whom we share a lot of positions and with whom we can be in constant communication.”
Labour’s future success, Tsipras argued, depends on how “daring” it can be over the next few years. “Britain is already in depression,” he said. “Nothing is getting better. More and more people in Europe realise that austerity is not a viable prospect. I hope people realise that there is no other way but to radicalise even further.
“If Labour wins the next election and opts to continue along [David] Cameron’s tracks, then it’s almost certain that they will lose every bond with the social classes that support them. The void left there will be filled by something new. That’s the way it works in nature and that’s the way it works in politics.”