Monday, 7 May 2012

Election results across Europe point to a massive rejection of austerity

A whole raft of election results across Europe over the last few days have proved to be an important bellwether in calculating how ordinary people feel about the consenus among the political elite for savage cuts, privatisation, public sector job losses and austerity.

In Greece, the incumbent New Democracy, similar to Britain's Conservatives, slumped from 33.5% to under 19%. Pasok, who are similar to New Labour, collapsed to 13%, a long way to fall from almost 44% at the last elections. This disenchantment with parties that support the bailout with strings attached that have meant savage austerity has led to a polarisation both left and right. The fascist Golden Dawn received 7% of the vote giving them 21 representatives in parliament. This is clearly very worrying. However the gains for the far left have been much bigger. Syriza, a coalition of far-left parties which was only formed in 2004 and which received 1% of the vote in its first election and just 5% in 2007, is now the second biggest party in Greek politics, securing a very impressive 16.8%. Syriza campaigned on a specifically anti-austerity and anti-cuts programme and their growth is a clear rejection of the consensus of the major parties. The Stalinist Communist Party also received 8.5% of the vote. New Democracy now has the extremely difficult task of piecing together a pro-cuts government but if they fail it will fall to Syriza to form an anti-cuts one. This will not be easy either and could lead to further elections but there is clearly an opportunity for a radically different vision to come to the fore in Greece, perhaps leading to Greece's exit from the Euro.

In France, the french people have elected Francois Hollande, the first 'socialist' president for 17 years. It is unclear precisely how Hollande will proceed; his Socialist Party is similar to New Labour in Britain and indeed he travelled to London to reassure City financiers, “I am not dangerous.” However it is undoubtedly the case that he was elected because of his clear anti-austerity rhetoric. The scale of the defeat for Sarkozy (he is the first french president for 30 years to fail to win a second term) is a clear rejection of his reactionary politics. Here too there was a polarisation away from the main parties to both left and right. Melenchon, the radical left politician of the Left Front, who campaigned to reverse cuts, strengthen workers’ rights and impose a 100% tax rate for the rich received 11% in the first round. In contrast to Hollande, Mellenchon proudly proclaims, “I am dangerous.” The vote for Marine Le Pen's fascist Front National is clearly a cause for great concern and was boosted by Sarkozy's tacking to the right by adopting openly racist policies, but in the end this was rejected by the french people.

In Britain, there has been a similar rejection of austerity. The Tories lost over 400 council seats and the Lib Dems lost over 300. If the Lib Dems results of the last two years are repeated for the next two, they will be virtually wiped out in one parliament. The Labour Party gained over 800 seats despite putting forward a very weak opposition to the cuts. Labour have said they will not reverse any of the cuts and it must be asked what might have happened had Labour given a clear lead in resisting the government's attacks on ordinary people. In many places, those that did were successful. Following George Galloway's incredible election victory in a by-election in Bradford last month, Respect have had five candidates elected to the council. In Preston, despite only deciding to stand at the last minute, Socialist Workers Party member Michael Lavalette regained the seat he lost last year. The fascist British National Party lost all the seats they were contesting, including their seat on the London Assembly. Similarly UKIP only managed to gain one council seat.

In London, the election of Tory Boris Johnson as London Mayor may be seen as an aberration. However, the polls showed that he didn't have an overall lead, but led among people who said they were certain to vote. His Labour rival Ken Livingstone suffered from his failure to mount a radical campaign that could have motivated people angry about austerity to back him, while Johnson benefited from being seen as somewhat independent from his party. The result does not reflect Londoners being right-wing or endorsing Johnson's policies. In 2000, standing as an independent, Livingstone won support by focusing on issues like opposing tube privatisation. This time, as the official Labour Party candidate, he campaigned against high public transport fares, but he lined up with the Tories over crime, criticising them only by saying he would put more resources into the police than Johnson. He also talked about the need to make London "business-friendly". A more radical vision could have won.

The lesson from all these results is that ordinary people across Europe have had enough of austerity, cuts and privatisation. All the major parties that support this position have taken a hammering in elections, including Angela Merkel's party in German local elections. This has lead to a polarisation to both left and right. In many countries there has been a worrying rise of more or less openly fascist parties, most notably Jobbik in Hungary, and this must be tackled by workers' movements and ordinary people more generally. However, the main winners, so far, have been the left. We need to take this opportunity to realign European politics and fight both austerity and fascism. We must keep up the momentum of resistance to the cuts and the bosses offensive until we have driven back those governments that are trying to make us pay for their crisis. We need to make the rich, who are getting increasingly richer, pay for their crisis. We need to demonstrate, strike and occupy until we have won.

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