by Rachel Godfrey Wood
Following Syriza’s unprecedented victory in the Greek elections on Sunday 25th January, activists gathered together at the TUC’s Congress House in London for a Greece Solidarity Campaign rally to celebrate the triumph and outline future actions in support of the anti-austerity movement in Greece and the rest of Europe.
Marina Prentoulis began by explaining her experience of being in Athens on the election night, and telling of the feelings of Syriza activists who had simply never experience a major victory in their lives before. She argued that the result is a slap in the face for those who have opposed austerity on the people of Greece, and a demonstration by the Greek people that they are not going to take any more of this. She told the crowd how the defeated Greek former prime minister, Antonis Samaras of New Democracy, and his fellow ministers took everything in the presidential palace with him before the arrival of Alexis Tsipras, and stated that this represents the mentality of the Greek right. Not only that it is also likely a sign of things to come, with the spectre of threats and blackmail against the Syriza government in the future. Syriza need to build up their own structures which bring the population into close partnership with them in order to strengthen the anti-austerity movement.
The new government’s policies are to destroy privileges and clientelism, and to end the existing lending agreements which have been enforced on Greece. The people need to mobilise and make demands in order to send out a strong message that the government has to deliver, regardless of the pressures being placed on it from within and outside of Greece. Regarding Syriza’s controversial coalition agreement with the right-wing anti-austerity ANEL party, she said that people should really ask the Greek Communist Party (KKE) why they have maintained such a sectarian position throughout the crisis and refused to go into coalition with them.
Leslie Manasseh, president of the TUC, congratulated the Greek people for their defiance of prevailing orthodoxies, in particular the idea that the poor should pay for the errors of the rich. Despite all the austerity inflicted on Greece, he noted, the elites have escaped unscathed, but now the poor have said ‘no more’. He emphasised the TUC’s support for Syriza’s call for a new deal on public spending and restructuring of debt, as well as their demand for repayments to be tied to growth.
Kate Hudson, national secretary of Left Unity and executive member of the Greece Solidarity Campaign (GSC), recalled the first visit she made to Greece in Spring of 2012, when all of the left activists in Greece called for ‘political solidarity’. What they meant by this was the extension of the anti-austerity struggle everywhere across Europe, similar to Che Guevara’s call for the left to open up fronts against imperialism across the world in the 1960s. The Greece Solidarity Campaign has been highly active, and recently has had a letter published in the Guardian in support of Syriza, while MPs have sponsored and early day motion in parliament expressing solidarity. There are of course still major humanitarian needs in Greece and so the role the campaign plays in supporting solidarity clinics is still necessary. She also praised the new government for immediately cancelling the planned privatisation of the Piraeus port. Hudson called for people to join the GSC and extend international cooperation.
Cherry Sewell, treasurer of the GSC, read out a speech by GSC chair Paul Mackney, who could not attend because of illness, recalling that he had first been to Greece during the early days of the dictatorship in 1967 when even groups of three people were prohibited from gathering together. The election victory on Sunday feels like the avenging of the political legacy of the dictatorship, and she quoted CLR James who remarked that ‘few believed that such power lay in the people’. In Athens, there was a strong rumbling throughout Sunday of the hope of the people, particularly when Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias quoted Leonard Cohen’s song ‘first we take Manhattan then we take Berlin’, which he later turned into ‘first we take Athens, then Madrid and then Berlin’. If Labour could take a firm anti-austerity position and support a Europe-wide conference on the issue of debt, that would be a step in the right direct. She called therefore for a strengthening of the UK’s anti-austerity movement to build a people’s coalition.
Following the formation of Syriza’s first cabinet, the minimum wage has been restituted to the level it was prior to the memoranda, public sector layoffs have been halted and the cleaners from the Ministry of Finance who had been protesting have been rehired. Health insurance has been declared for all to meet the needs of the third of the population lacking it. Citizenship has been announced for the children of immigrants.
Left wing Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn explained how he had asked David Cameron if he had had the opportunity to phone Alexis Tsipras to congratulate him about Syriza’s victory. To Corbyn’s surprise, Cameron actually demonstrated a sense of humour, saying that he was happy to work in the future with the Greek government on the issue of tax collection! Corbyn denounced not only the austerity imposed on Greece, but also the way it had been accompanied by lecture after lecture about how the whole of Greek society was responsible for it all. Meanwhile Pasok dutifully did whatever was asked of them by the Troika, and whatever they did, more was always demanded of them, like some sort of medieval bloodletting. It was all about reconfiguring Greek society, and ultimately that is what austerity is all about. Greece has been an economic laboratory, like Chile was in the 1970s. For Corbyn, the message of Syriza’s victory is that if you give people hope then they will respond. If not, there are far-right forces across Europe waiting in the wings to take advantage.
Following Corbyn, Stathis Kouvelakias of Syriza heralded the election triumph, saying that it was time to move beyond resistance to create and construct conditions for a victory. It is rare for an election in Greece to capture so much attention, and it was impressive how many people came to see the election win. Athens, which has been the capital of pain and suffering, has now become the capital of hope. ‘The new government is not an endpoint,’ Kouvelakis said, ‘it is just a start.’ Angela Merkel did not send a telegram of congratulations until one and a half days after the election, an unprecedented amount of time, and when she did, she just said that Greece has to continue complying with the agreements already made. ‘She just doesn’t get it’, Kouvelakis said, ‘the memorandum is over.’
Debt is a weapon used by the European ruling classes to exert their power, he said. Greece needs international solidarity, and for this the contribution of the British left is essential. He also highlighted the decision of the new Minister of Immigration to extend nationality to the children of all migrants. Healthcare for all and a number of social services will be recovered. Kouvelakis recalled London’s long history as a meeting place for activists and solidarity work. The most important thing is for the left across Europe to mount challenges to austerity in every country. To date, the most significant show of solidarity has been the surge of Podemos, which now has prospects to seriously challenge in the Spanish elections at the end of the year. This has given new impetus to Syriza. ‘This is the start of the end of the cycle that began on 11 September 1973 in Chile,’ said Kouvelakis. He emphasised that Allende had expressed the certainty that the seed sown in Chile would grow throughout the world, reaching even Europe.
Katy Clark MP then made a speech in which she celebrated the victory of Syriza and the work of the GSC. In particular, she pointed out how Syriza’s near-triumph in the 2012 election had placed anti-austerity politics firmly on the agenda across Europe. What was needed now, she said, was a strong coalition against cuts in the UK.
Speakers from the floor asked further questions about Syriza’s coalition, as well as the risks of Golden Dawn. They drew attention to the South Europe Forum in Barcelona and the coming March for Homes in London on 31 January, and emphasised the need to support the Greece Solidarity Campaign and the continuing health solidarity work through Medical Aid for Greece.
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