Tom King, BA Politics
As Labour strive to be in opposition for just one term, the party leadership has walked a tightrope between opposing unpopular cuts which have battered working class people and largely backing an ‘austerity-lite’ package to wipe out the deficit and run a budget surplus in a bid to win ‘economic credibility’. But the European election results show that this strategy is fraught with danger.
Across the continent, centre-left parties who have implemented austerity were punished at the polls. The Irish Labour Party has taken a hammering in local elections after joining right wing Fine Gael in government to push through the Eurozone bailout package. The UK’s sister party picked up just 50 seats of the 949 up for election and nationally received just 7.2% of first preference votes – half their vote share from five years ago. Instead of gaining ‘economic credibility’ for taking ‘tough decisions’, Irish Labour have been all but wiped out in local government. The dire results have led to the resignation of the party’s leader and allowed left wing Sinn Féin to double their vote share in the south from 2009 and pick up three times as many council seats as Labour.
In Spain, the established left party also saw its vote share tumble. But it is in Greece, where Eurozone austerity has been most harshly enforced, that the centre-left has taken the biggest hit. Pasok, first in government and then as a junior coalition partner, have slashed state spending and deregulated the economy. Unemployment has soared and growth tanked. For this, Pasok have been punished; with the radical left party Syriza trouncing them and conservative New Democracy to surge into first place.
In 2009, Syriza polled less than 5% of the vote and held just one seat, but in this round of elections their vote has soared to 26.5% and six of their candidates have been elected MEPs, whereas Pasok’s vote collapsed – down 29% – and the party managed to hold on to only two of its eight European parliamentary seats. The radical left are not the only winners from Greek austerity politics; the neo-nazi party which polled just 23,566 votes nationwide five years ago, Golden Dawn, came third in these elections, taking 3 seats and 9.4% of the vote. In France too the far-right made gains on the back of socialist President Hollande’s austerity, with the fascist Front National topping the poll.
The wipeout of the Liberal Democrats in Britain, who, whilst not a centre-left party, attracted many centre-left voters in 2010, contains the same warning for Ed Miliband. Labour can’t go into the next election promising to make people better off, but in office cut as deep as the Tories. It would not only be a disaster for the working people the party was founded to represent but the lesson from Europe is clear that austerity does not win economic credibility for centre-left parties, it casts them into the electoral wilderness.