Monday, 26 January 2015

Moving swiftly on

They did it!

Last night, the Coalition of the Radical Left threw a political hand grenade into European politics with an extraordinary election victory which has shaken the foundations of capitalism and bankocracy itself. It's hard to overestimate the sheer scale of their victory. Five and a half years on from a very creditable performance resulting in fourteen seats and 4,6% of the national vote, the SYRIZA has swept across Greece, destroying the pro-austerity parties in its path. They secured 149 seats in parliament, with 36,3% of the vote, being only two seats away from an absolute majority, and propelling its leader, Alexis Tsipras, into the office of prime minister: the youngest Greek leader in a century and a half. 

It was wonderful to see so much solidarity expressed with the SYRIZA from across Europe. Watching the live coverage on NERIT from the SYRIZA gazebo in central Athens, it was notable that there were an array of flags and banners from France, Scotland, Italy, Germany and Ireland. This is our moment for the radical Left in Europe. We have been battered for a generation. We have raised a generation of political activists on failure. We have had no victories, nothing to celebrate, nothing to inspire us. It has been hard going. 

Last night gave us hope - and the Hellenic Republic is now a source of immense pride to us all. We are inspired by the tremendous victory of the SYRIZA, destroying the established order in a single swoop across every prefecture of Greece. Colin Fox, in Athens, said last night "I've learned a lot. I'm bringing it all back to Scotland with me". When I go to Greece later on this year, it will be with a heart filled with respect and love for the Greek people, who refused to be bullied or intimidated. 

Winning the election was probably the easy part, and the SYRIZA - despite the Scottish Labour Party last night reacting to the victory by referring to the new prime minister as "contemptible, a fantasist, an outright liar, reminds you of Mussolini" - has the best wishes of the real Left in Europe as they carry out a painful repulsion of austerity in an uncomfortable coalition with a Greek version of Ukip which which they have very little in common. 

With the SYRIZA a beacon of hope for Europe's radical Left, where do we go from here?

Well, there are six sets of legislative elections coming up in Europe in the remainder of the year, including the UK's general election in which current opinion polls show the Scottish Labour Party having more in common with the PA.SO.K than merely a propensity for campaigning and governing alongside conservatives; namely, a near-purging of the party from Parliament. 

The next election is on St David's Day, when Estonians go to the polls to elect a new Riigikogu. I was in Tallinn for the last general election, and frankly, there's no hope for the radical Left there at all. The place was festooned with posters for the liberal Reform Party (Reformierakond) and the conservative Union of Pro Patria and Respublica (IRL). The Centre Party (Keskerakond) is the opposition. A Blairite party, the Social Democrats (SDE) is the smallest party in the Riigikogu and props up the Reform Party government in coalition.

There are 101 members of the Riigikogu, elected by modified d'Hondt proportional representation of all parties which pass a national 5% threshold from twelve constituencies

The Vasakpartei is the radical Left movement in Estonia (Estonian United Left). It is a pro-Russian eurocommunist party and has no seats in Parliament. Polling data is not terribly optimistic, and I suspect that if you pin all your hopes and dreams in live on the Vasakpartei winning a SYRIZA-style victory, you may be subject to some disappointment. Reformierakond is leading in the polls, but one recent poll had Keskerakond in the lead. 

Never one to overshadow its neighbour with which it has close relations, Finland is holding its general election the very next month, on 19th April. The current government is a coalition of Kokoomus (conservative), SDP (Finnish version of New Labour, but nice), the Svenska Folkpartiet (Swedish People's Party (No, it's not a copy and paste error. Liberals) and Kristiliisdemokraatit (Christian Democrats). It's supported by the solitary MP sent from the autonomous province of Aaland. 

The good guys here are in the parliament, the Vasemmistoliitto (Left Alliance). They quit the National Government over Alexander Stubb's government cutting the social welfare problems. They have twelve seats in the Eduskunta (they did have fourteen MPs elected at the last election where the party scored 8,1% of the national vote, but two of the MPs had to be purged for being wee scamps). Finland isn't as badly affected by the austerity as other Eurozone countries as a result of years of quasi-socialism, but the Vasemmistoliitto is still polling astonishingly high at between 8-9%. A slight increase in support could result in them having up to 10% of the 200 seats in Eduskunta and being kingmakers in any potential coalition government. 

Finns select their MPs by d'Hondt proportional representation. There will be 13 constituencies for this election, while there were previously fifteen. This is owing to a merger between Northern Savonia and Northern Karelia, and between Southern Savonia and Kymi. Someone obviously really doesn't like Savonia.

The next month is the UK election, about which many words will be spilled, and then psephological geekery goes into abeyance until the Danish general election, which has to be held by 14th September. Like Finland - which is not in Scandinavia - Denmark has a tradition of moderately left-wing policies. It is not a member of the Eurozone, although it is a member of the European Union. It is a wealthy nation which has not tangibly suffered from the ongoing Depression. The government is run by Socialdemokraterna (social-democrats) and the Radikale (a liberal-ish party). Socialistisk Folkspartei, a party analogous in policies roughly to the Greens here, were in the government, but walked out of the coalition after a dispute over the sales of shares in State utilities. The coalition is supported on an issue-by-issue basis by both Enhedslisten (the Red-Green Alliance) and the conservative Venstre, which is the largest party.

The closest to a radical Left party in Denmark is the Enhedslisten, which won 6,7% of the vote in 2011, translating to 12 seats in the 179-member Folketing

Denmark has suffered relatively little from austerity, and certainly not to the catastrophic extent of Greece, Ireland and Spain. The government has satisfied itself with public sector pay freezes. Even unemployment is low. The radical Left, therefore, isn't polling at particularly exciting levels. Even so, opinion polling shows they will return a higher share of the vote from last time, perhaps not being terribly far off of doubling their seats. Their worst-case scenario is Voxmeter's 8,3%; the best-case being 11,0% with Greens. Most polls show them between 8,5%-9,5%. my prediction would be that they will get half as many seats again as in 2011. There's every chance they could be the kingmakers in the new Folketing. Danes elect their MPs by the d'Hondt system of party-list proportionality. There are 179 members of the Folketing, 175 of which are returned from Denmark, and two each from Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Denmark itself has ten constituencies, each sending a varying number of MPs to Folketing to a total of 135. The remaining forty seats are allocated to parties which achieve a threshold of 2% nationally by proportion.

Poland will be next to go to the polls before Hallowe'en, on a date selected by president Komorowski. The 460 members of the Sejm are elected on a d'Hondt party-list proportional basis, and the previous election returned a coalition government of Platforma Obywatelska and Stronnictwo Ludowe. The former, Civic Platform, is a conservative party which provides both the president of the republic and the president of the council of ministers (the prime minister), Ewa Kopacz. Parties need to pass a 5% threshold to get allocated seats in the Sejm. Their coalition partners, the Polish People's Party, are also socially conservative, with a farmer-peasant tradition. 

There are two centre-left parties in the Sejm; Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (Democratic Left, borne out of the PZPR- Polish United Workers' Party - which governed the old People's Republic of Poland, but now firmly centrist). They are in decline. Twój Ruch, or 'Your Movement', is tiny, and is unlikely to pass the threshold. 

There is no radical Left party in Poland with any conceivable chance of making it into the Sejm, never mind wielding influence.

The last, best, hope, therefore, for the European radical Left is in the Spanish general election, which may take place before Poland's, but more likely in November. The 350 members of the Congress of Deputies are elected by popular vote in constituencies mirroring the Spanish provinces by the d'Hondt method of proportional representation. Unusually, this does not generally result in coalition governments, with Spanish political parties preferring to govern as minority governments, seeking ad-hoc agreement on issue-by-issue basis. There is a threshold of 3% to enter the Cortes, and this includes blank or spoiled ballots. 

The incumbent Partido Popular is sadly misnamed. The government of Mariano Rajoy is extremely unpopular as a result of its austerity measures. The main opposition PSOE, the Socialist Workers' Party, is a Blairite-style centre-left group, which is plummeting in the polls over a perceived collaboration with the PP over austerity and bank bailouts. Other parties currently represented in parliament are the liberal Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD); the Catalan nationalist CiU;  Amaiur, a Basque nationalist party; and the Izquierda Unida, the communist-oriented 'United Left' which confidently expected to the beneficiary of the collapse in the PSOE vote. 

Until Podemos

The radical Left party has come, literally, from nowhere to be a comfortable second in opinion polls, sneaking closer and closer to the PP with every passing poll and leading in several. 

The Spanish campaign is extremely similar to the election campaign in Scotland. The ruling conservatives are despised for their harsh austerity policies of spending cuts on public services, labour 'reform', bank bailouts and VAT rises, but despite this, the centre-left opposition is unable to capitalise on this lost support, being reviled for its catastrophically inept administration previous to the conservatives taking power. Major corruption scandals have tainted both parties, which are now seen by a majority of voters as two wings of the same rotten establishment, and a constitutional crisis provoked by an independence campaign in a resource-rich province, has led to a political vacuum into which a third force has stepped. 

I'm describing Spain, incidentally, not Scotland. 

Podemos - it's Spanish for 'we can', and a play on words on 'for social democracy', which in Spain is POr DEMOcracia Social - was only founded last year, but still came fourth in the European elections a few months later. It is already Spain's second-largest party in terms of membership, with 100.000 signing up in the first twenty days. Its origin is extra-political - it comes from the indignado anti-austerity street protests which rocked Spain during the financial collapse and subsequent imposition of austerity. Taking inspiration from the Scottish Socialist Party, Podemos MEPs do not take their full salary, taking less than a quarter of the salary to expose the gulf in incomes between the elite and the people.

They are anti-Nato and are a feminist movement, but with the fundamental goal of opposing austerity, and extending this to nationalisation of Spain's wealth and resources - something long-since abandoned by the PSOE. They also support national self-determination - important with a constitutional crisis over the Catalan independence campaign brewing. They are environmentalists, opposing the use of fossil fuels and replacing it with renewable energy; and place strong emphasis on redistribution of wealth through policies such as a citizens' income and the abolition of tax avoidance by big business.

A massive rise in unemployment in Spain has sent young people hurtling away from establishment politics and into the open arms of Podemos. And further displaying their anti-politics credentials, the party decided not to stand in the local elections scheduled for May - instead supporting grassroots candidates on a local level. 

Opinion polling shows that the radical Left is not just going to enter the Cortes, but may dominate it. From 0% in January 2014, it is on a solid 25% a year later, with the PP on 26% and falling. It is a meteoric rise for the young radical Left movement in Spain, and Enrique Iglesias, with his open-necked shirt and rock-star looks, is set to be a major player in Spanish politics. Two opinion polls in 2015 so far have even shown Podemos in the lead, with a poll in December 2014 showing the party on 30%. 

2015 opened with a morale-boosting, earth-shaking victory for the European radical Left. We may yet finish the year with another one. Greed may well be a mortal sin, but having got the taste for electoral success for the radical Left in Greece, I'm afraid I want more and more. We've taken Athens. In November we can take Madrid. 

And in 2016? Legislative elections in Ireland and Scotland. If Greece and Spain can show us the way to take control from the political establishment, let's learn that lesson. Sending pro-independence/anti-austerity MPs to Westminster in May, and socialist MSPs to Holyrood next year would be an unmistakable message from the Scottish people that we have learned from our brothers and sisters in Spain and Greece, and are no longer prepared to suffer so the rich can get richer. 

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