There is a lot being written about the current negotiations between the Syriza government in Greece and the EU/IMF. The distance of most journalists from the Greek reality and atmosphere and the sheer volume of competing information, makes for a lot of white noise. I want to filter much of it out and boil the issues down to some very basic points. This is by no means a definitive list, but it is one which I think captures a number of “big ticket items” which I have not seen made clearly and explicitly.
1. The crisis is not an economic, but a political one. In the grand scheme of things, the sums which are the totality of the difference between the government’s proposal and the EU/IMF’s counterproposals are tiny and risible. Stripped of their political significance, they would not even show up as a blip on the European, let alone the global economic radar. A solution has not been achieved, because the EU/IMF are defending austerity in general. To concede, would be to accept they got it wrong.
2. The measures being counter-proposed by the EU are undeliverable and punitive. One only has to look at the proposals on VAT to realise that the EU is either clueless or not interested in a deal. Proposed VAT rates of 11% on staple food and 23% on electricity/water are not only regressive and unaffordable, but would plunge Greece into an inflationary death spiral, discouraging tourism, encouraging illegal trade and costing many times more than they raise in lost revenue. The proposal to scrap the relief to islands shows a lack of understanding of basic economic realities regarding the cost of shipping goods to thousands of small, remote islands. It is blindly trying to apply German policies. The proposals are not economically realistic; they are a punishment beating for having elected the “wrong” government.
3. The entrenched position of the players has to do with domestic rather than international policies. The battle between Merkel and Schäuble behind the scenes for leadership of their party before the next German election; the threat Rajoy faces in Spain from Podemos, underlined by recent municipal results; resistance to Dijsselbloem’s programme of ultra-right-wing economic policies in the Netherlands within his own Labour Party; the failure of Renzi to stimulate a stagnating Italian economy; – all these factors, and many besides, play a much bigger part in shaping players’ position towards the Greek crisis, than anything to do with the Greek crisis.
4. A fundamental misjudgment of Syriza in general and Tsipras in particular. There was a catastrophically widely held belief among the European establishment that, once elected, Tsipras would “play ball”. There is still palpable shock at his sticking to his election commitments, often expressed as the accusation that he is being unreasonable. Every statement out of EU institutions for the last five months has been practically underlined by the subtext “shit, he wasn’t bluffing”.
5. A Grexit would be disastrous for the EU. Tsipras understands this. Given current geopolitical circumstances, Putin’s expansionism, the powder keg that is North Africa, the Middle East on the brink of all-out war – strategically, Europe could afford to lose practically any single country from the Union, except Greece. Greece is the geographic and military key to all those conflict zones. Greece slipping by default into a China/Russia alliance would be nothing short of a global game-changer.
6. There was an underestimation of popular support for Syriza and misunderstanding of the mood in Greece. The EU/IMF clearly expected support for the new government to ebb away, as fruitless negotiations protracted. The opposite has happened. Support is significantly higher now than in the January election. Tsipras’s personal ratings are sky high. After living on the brink of disaster for so many years, I sense a que-sera-sera attitude in most people. This is not to say they don’t fear capital controls, the threat of Grexit, austerity, hunger, poverty and degradation. It is to say that they have lived with them for so long, they have become an ordinary part of the landscape.
7. Greeks are busiest in the summer. Everyone is busiest during the summer months. Everyone is richer during the summer months. It was a fundamental miscalculation by the EU/IMF to try and win a PR battle of fear during this period. The country is too light, too warm, too beautiful and too busy to take notice.
CONCLUSION: The EU/IMF have played their hand badly. By calling a bluff that wasn’t a bluff they have played themselves into a situation in which they have no win scenario and no exit strategy. They will lose. The only question now is whether they lose badly or not and whether they take Greece down with them.
If this intransigence is played out, they force Greece into a new election, possible Grexit, instability, and plunge the entire continent back into recession. If they back down, Greece is seen as victorious, Podemos wins in Spain and they start the same negotiations with Iglecias, only the sums involved are larger and a resistance front in Southern Europe pushing back against imposed market liberalisation and austerity becomes a serious challenge.
They have, I think, realised this, but are still locked in a self-destructive raising of the stakes. Merkel and Hollande have noted this, which is why they have taken charge of negotiations increasingly away from the Eurogroup.
The reason this matters to all is twofold. First, it forces out into the open and brings into sharp contrast the increasing divergence between the wellbeing of markets and the wellbeing of populations. Second, it marks a clear act of economic blackmail by a global de facto establishment – let’s call it “The Davos Set” – unhappy at a democratic people opting for an alternative to neoliberalism.
How these tensions resolve themselves will determine whether national elections remain meaningful in any way; whether democratic change is possible or violent revolution is in fact the only effective option.
I don’t say this lightly. It seems to me that Labour is about to make such a fundamental strategic flaw, it will make itself irrelevant for the next election, the one after that and, possibly, forever. I have seen this in Greece with PaSoK.
Simply put, Blair’s strategy would not be successful today. Attempting to emulate it will be disastrous. Blair worked from a completely different voting base: he knew he “had” most of the North, Wales, Scotland and a strong base of working class votes everywhere else. All he needed was a little help from the Home Counties; a little push from floating/undecided voters in the centre.
Labour today does not have most of that base any more. Its vote is under serious threat in all those areas. It is largely seen as having betrayed working people and this is being exploited by UKIP, SNP, even the Conservatives. It needs to, first and foremost, fight to secure that base again. Nobody at a strategy level appears to get that. They think that, just like Blair, they can leave their homestead entirely undefended and forage for votes on the centre-right.
If we’re lucky, a new entity – possibly a coalition of progressives a la Syriza – will challenge from the left. And I say “if we’re lucky” meaning everyone, wherever they are on the political spectrum. The political landscape needs balance. Enlightened voters, wherever they sit politically, instinctively understand that a strong centre-left, keeps the centre-right honest and vice versa. If we’re less lucky, a party like UKIP will continue to shift in a populist direction and become the party of opposition.
It’s amazing how discrimination always becomes hypothetical to people who, on the whole, haven’t experienced it. Rich, straight, white guys telling the world their future notional freedom has been somehow curtailed by a decision against a baker in County Antrim.
These have all been posed to me today:
“Suppose someone walked into my bakery and asked for a cake with the message ‘legalise slavery’ on it.”
“What if I were a baker and someone asked me to ice a cake with a pro-life message?”
“What if I were a Jewish baker, asked to write a neonazi message?”
“A Christian walks into a Muslim sign writer’s shop and orders a placard. He says it should carry a cartoon of the prophet and the slogan Muslims Go Home.”
Only none of those things happened. Here is what did happen: a gay guy walked into a bakery – a bakery not a church – and asked for a cake with a message on it, something this bakery did for hundreds of people every year. He was told to take his business elsewhere, because the owner found gay marriage offensive. As clear a case of discrimination as you are likely to see.
The judge has not mandated that the baker find gay marriage any less offensive, of course. The court has not injuncted the baker to make the cake. It has just fined him for discriminating against his customers. That’s all. His “moral objection” will cost him £500, because it was found to be discriminatory and, so, unlawful. If a neonazi sues a Jewish bakery any time soon, a judge can deal with that situation sensibly, just like a judge dealt with this one.
“Actually, same sex marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland, so the law supports the baker’s position”, said one genius to me. Only the baker wasn’t asked to marry a man. He was asked to ice a cake. Even in Northern Ireland, that is still legal.
Apparently acting against this kind of behaviour, which gay people experience on a regular basis, is aggressively pursuing some kind of homosexual agenda. We are supposed to just brush it off, just go to another bakery and not cause a fuss. And why? Because to act against this bigotry, might prejudice a bunch of fictitious people facing situations which you made up.
And to compound it all, you pursue these arguments by suggesting some sort of moral equivalence between being gay and being a fan of slavery, an islamophobe, a pro-lifer or a neonazi. Which is not that far away, frankly, from people arguing against marriage equality with “What is next? Brothers marrying sisters? Men marrying dogs?”
So, no, I’m not going to another bakery. You advertised a service. I employed you to provide it, not to edit my life. Your beliefs do not entitle you to some sort of Magical Christian Immunity from the law. Do your fucking job.
Many on the left seem engaged in head-up-bottom introspection and election predictions, two-hundred-and-sixty-eight weeks (probably) from the next election. They are the same people who couldn’t predict the last election five minutes before the polls closed. Now, they speak with absolute certainty about the next one, which is five years away. The lessons are there for whomever cares to learn them.
Within a similar timeframe in Greece: the leading left-of-centre PaSoK had collapsed from 45% of the vote to 4.5% of the vote; a new radical party was governing in coalition with the equivalent of UKIP; oh yes; and the nastier, Greek version of the BNP had come third.
Elections turn on events and events are notoriously unpredictable.
Who could have predicted “Sleaze” creating a perfect storm with “Back to Basics” in the early 90s? Or the MPs expenses scandal within months of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-09? There are events that no government can live down. There are wounds inflicted which are fatal, whether instantly or over time. All it takes is a nexus of unforeseen events and an opposition shrewd enough to capitalise on it.
Strangely, I think the former condition was present during the last administration, but not the latter. Cameron was hugely vulnerable after he lost the vote on Syria. His backbenchers were itching for a fight. The “Omnishambles Budget” was a thread hanging off a very delicate coalition fabric, just begging for someone to keep tugging. Nobody did with any conviction. Osborne’s job was on the line that month. 20% more pressure and the LibDems would have joined calls for his head.
These things could and should have been kept fresh in people’s minds. An inescapable narrative of incompetence begged to be constructed. Every time the Conservatives claimed competence in security, the public should have been reminded of a PM who refused to return from holiday, then recalled the House and presented a half-baked Syria motion, which he lost. Every time they claimed economic competence, a reminder of the “Omnishambles” budget should have been the response. By the time we got to the election, the Coalition would have been the brunt of limericks and the punchline of jokes.
Instead, having done little of this groundwork, Labour got involved in a circle-wank with headstones and coffee mugs. This is because for over four years it had been an introspective party, behind the curve of events, concerned over whether it had chosen the right leader, winning the occasional battle, but unable to sustain a strategy for winning the war. Everything was aimed at convincing itself of its own credentials, instead of convincing the country.
Battles are not won or lost only in the four weeks of a campaign. They are won and lost in the years that precede them. Anyone can play a check-mate, provided they are handed a chess board in which a check-mate is one move away. The skill is in getting in that position. Opportunities will present themselves for either side, because they always do; because politics is shaped by the fickle nature of events. The biggest of these opportunities may materialise in four years or tomorrow. All the governing party can do is be as unified, professional and effective as possible; ready to play a killer move. All the opposition has to do is exactly the same. The best strategy will win.
Every moment that is devoted exclusively to introspection is lost from effective opposition. The two activities can and must go hand-in-hand. There isn’t “plenty of time”. Opposition is Labour’s key constitutional role. Once the moment is gone, it is impossible to recover. The stakes are high: the future of the NHS and the BBC, the integrity of our civil rights, our membership of the European Union. If these bedrocks are allowed to be eroded unopposed, the public will never forgive Labour. I will never forgive Labour.
That headline is how the internet feels right now. Or, more specifically, the bits of it I choose to engage with. I have read column after column and tweet after tweet about why Labour lost the election or why the Conservatives won it, what happened in Scotland, what happened in London, what direction the party should take, who should be next leader, what is wrong with the left, what is wrong with this country. For a side that just lost heavily – and, importantly, had no clue such a heavy defeat was coming – we haven’t really learned an iota of humility. We’re still very much in “transmit” rather than “listen” mode.
Nobody knows what happened. Nobody expected it to be this awful. Any such claims should be treated with the scepticism usually reserved for instant weight loss remedies. Nobody can tell with any certainty “what will definitely win the next election”. If they could they would be selling their secret formula as the highest paid election consultant in the world; not giving it away on twitter. We’re all football fans whose team has just lost: full of alcohol and bitterness and spent adrenaline and advice on team selection.
The most dangerous of us are choosing this vulnerable moment to tell the rest we should lurch to the left or lurch to the right, which just happens to be what they have always believed, anyway. I view them with special spite. They support their grandiose statements with pseudo-intellectual sophistry. I choose among those this peach from the New Statesman which is a perfect sample and made me particularly angry.
It seeks to pre-empt and pre-silence any discussion which may crop up on the role of the media. The hysterical, sustained and vicious attacks on Miliband and his policies in the press, apparently, had no effect. It’s a red herring. Quick someone call all the companies who spend a combined $600b each year on advertising and give them the news. Someone at the New Statesman thinks that a particular image or narrative appearing in all media over time has no influence whatsoever. “Powerful interests” also had no influence, apparently. Those sad jerks who donate millions to the Conservative Party every year, someone tell them. The piece even concludes that the Conservatives themselves running a shrewd campaign didn’t have anything to do with the election result (no, really). The only thing the does not count as a “delusion”, the only thing that matters, is that the Labour party didn’t follow Blair’s advice and position itself more to the right.
What the fuck is more to the right than a tombstone with “we will control immigration” carved on it?
The truth is, we’re all flailing in the dark. I have no solutions to offer. I have only the following observations, which you may find helpful or not, resonant or not.
It seems to me, we are plagued by self-doubt about our message. And that came across loud and clear in conversations both among us and with the electorate. This meant that we were all a lot more comfortable saying how awful the other team were, instead of how good ours was. This made for an uninspiring campaign which failed to change anyone’s mind.
It seems to me, we are plagued by self-doubt about our message. The message when delivered was stilted, dull and senseless. “Labour will deal with the cost of living crisis” repeated embarrassed, bored people like drones for months on endless programmes. WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN to anyone other than the colourless, odourless, tasteless policy wonks who sat in a room with a whiteboard and came up with it? Nothing. It means nothing.
It seems to me, we are plagued by self-doubt about our message. The Conservatives were not plagued by any such self-doubt. Blair was not. DO YOU NOT GET IT? Blair did not win three elections by being “Blairite”. He won them by being Blair. He could deliver his message with authenticity and conviction because centrism was genuinely what he believed in and that is why he was persuasive.
It seems to me, we are plagued by self-doubt about our message. Any leader who spends four and a half years trying to convince a nail-biting party that they didn’t make a mistake and then two months trying to convince voters is doomed. Just like Major second-time around, Hague, Howard and IDS were. That was the Conservatives’ turn of looking for the “next Thatcher”. “Is he Thatcher-ite” enough is he “too Thatcher-ite” and just like that 18 years went by before they won their next majority. Let’s not do that.
It seems to me, we are plagued by self-doubt about our message. Thatcher’s greatest triumph was not convincing her party or her voters that her way was best. It was convincing the left that there was no alternative to rampant neoliberalism. Otherwise, when people occupied St Pauls, and half a million marched against the cuts and rioters burned London, Labour would not have been too scared to harness that anger. When Syriza were elected in Greece, Labour would not be so terrified to offer Tsipras their congratulations and good wishes.
It seems to me, we are plagued by self-doubt about our message. The reason people didn’t believe we could reverse austerity is because we didn’t fight it tooth and nail when it happened. We dithered we worried about getting to the “throne” in 2015. We eventually agreed to the cuts, stopped fighting the “it’s all Labour’s fault narrative”, accepted the “tough decisions” rhetoric. We turned on the unemployed and migrants. How would it be portrayed in the media? Would that make us look too left, too right, too close to the unions. And so everything became stage-managed, controlled, stilted and inauthentic.
Pick a leader quickly. FOR FUCK’S SAKE it is not rocket science. You need someone who has good ideas, whose values align with the party’s, who looks good on camera and is an effective speaker. THEN you need to leave them alone to express themselves. The public needs to get to know them. They will either take to them or not. It cannot be predicted, but you will know it pretty quickly. Stop trying to adjust them to make them more electable. Passion, authenticity and dynamism are what is electable. Every time you pull that person into a room and adjust their hair, tell them to avoid X question and make sure they mention Y soundbite, you stunt precisely those qualities.
Pull your finger out. The UK didn’t just elect a government. It also elected an official opposition. The Tories have made it very clear that they will push ahead with a very aggressive legislative programme. It is absolutely essential that Labour can reconcile a process of soul-searching with their constitutional role of legislative scrutiny.The best route to becoming government is to be the most amazing opposition. And, by coincidence, it is also what you were elected to do. Being opposition is not a slight. It is the second most important role in our democracy. So do it and do it well.
I know this is a difficult time, but I’m afraid there is a matter I must raise with you.
Last year, you were questioned about your abysmal attendance record in the European Parliament. Your response was that this was due to poor health (although, that doesn’t explain your party’s poor attendance record).
A few days ago, on Radio 4’s World at One programme, you were again questioned about your poor attendance this year. Your response was that as party leader you felt you had special dispensation to not show up.
In your post-defeat interview, you stated that you now intended to “take the summer off, have some fun and do very little politics”. During this period you and your wife (who I believe is also on the EU payroll as your assistant) will collect over £50,000 to represent your region in the European Parliament.
You are now no longer any party’s leader and your health appears to be dandy. European Parliament doesn’t go into summer recess for some months. Why do you feel you are entitled to take the next few months off to have fun, while I continue to fund you?
If you are genuinely concerned about corruption and waste at the European level, perhaps you could set a good example by resigning from your MEP position too and allow someone to do it who wants to do it.
I await your response with excitement.
Young Romulus Augustus, on the very last
October day, four seven five AD,
fourteen years old, unripe, miscast,
by his old man’s expedient decree
was crownéd the new Emperor of Rome.
Did he feel bitterness, pleasure or pride?
Or shame, perhaps, for having Julius deposed.
Maybe he squealed with glee; or cried.
Maybe he was remarkably composed
and thought a palace was his rightful home.
I ask this, as I scan the ancient text,
because it interests me to know, in truth,
if prior knowledge of what happened next
would have impacted on the Royal youth:
Is he more blessed or cursed, one who predicts?
Even as that impossible gold wreath
was placed upon his head by scheming hands,
resentment rumbled darkly from beneath.
Rome fell to Odoacer’s rebel bands,
early September of the year four seven six.
A common and sad epilogue; a quirk observed in every empire as it ended:
As Royals scheme over the crown, they leave their walls entirely undefended.