Notes from the front – of the week 3/2/2015

Syriza’s victory continues to generate positive shock waves

The positive effects of the Syriza victory continue to be felt nationally and internationally. The new Syriza government has moved rapidly to make good its election pledges to roll back austerity.

Privatisations have been halted, sacked workers reinstated and pension cuts restored. Fees for hospital visits and prescriptions have been abolished and the government has set about restoring electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes that had been cut off for unpaid bills. In an important strategic move, migrant children born in Greece now have automatic citizenship.

European citizens and voters are unused to parties carrying out their pledges and the positive shock is significant. Nearly 70 per cent of Greeks believe Tsipras will succeed as Prime Minister. Across Europe, the Syriza victory has galvanised the anti-austerity left, especially the parties leading in the polls. Podemos held an enormous election-year rally in Madrid. In Ireland, Sinn Féin’s call for a realignment of the Left based on anti-austerity and national unity has been taken up by trade union leaders.

The impact of Syriza’s victory go far beyond Europe. In Latin America and in China governments are not beholden to the troika of the IMF, ECB and EU and have an interest in increasing mutually beneficial trade or investment. But it is also significant that the first ambassador Tsipras met was from Russia. Some Syriza leaders were active in opposing NATO as far back as the bombing of Serbia. They have opposed NATO expansionism and there is clearly concern in Brussels and in Washington that new government will put a brake on further sanctions against Russia.

For anti-austerity activists and militants the most controversial decision to date has been to form a coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks. This is clearly a risky tactic. But it is not clear there was any other course open to them, as no other potential ally would join with the government to oppose austerity. It is impossible from the outside to know whether forming a stable minority government was ever a possibility. More fundamentally, patriotism is a strong progressive force in Greece and the national humiliation involved in the bailout process inevitably also generate nationalistic currents on the right. The left having hegemony and leading them in an anti-austerity direction is the necessary task. For now, the Syriza government’s actions (including granting citizenship rights to migrants’ children) suggest the tactic of coalition may well be justified.

Big tests lie ahead perhaps in the very near future. The financial press reports that ECB President Draghi is threatening to orchestrate a run on the Greek banks similar to the one in Cyprus in 2013 which broke the Nicosia government’s resistance to a bailout and austerity. The ECB could stop providing short-term funds to Greek banks, which could make international and domestic payments to seize up. The Troika could also withhold funds previously agreed under the ‘bailout’ programme.

A key problem for Syriza’s opponents is the growth of international solidarity especially the rise of Podemos. The terms of the previous bailout were designed to isolate Greece and let all future potential losses from inevitable debt default fall on Greek banks. But, as long as there is a threat of large countries like Spain following Greece, the Troika cannot simply threaten to expel Greece from the Euro or the EU. Building that solidarity movement is the key task outside Greece. In Britain there is a welcome and broad support for Syriza inside the labour movement and beyond. The key demand here remains drop the debt.

US boom is a myth

In 2014 US real GDP growth was 2.4 per cent and for China it was 7.4 per cent, according to the most recent data. Among western commentators the US is held up as the example for growth and foolish assertions about a US boom are widespread. By contrast China is widely presented as being in crisis.

Yet the maths are clear. China is growing at more than three times the pace of the US economy. In addition, the effects of compounding means that, if the 5 per cent growth differential is maintained, the Chinese economy will grow at twice the rate of the US economy in little more than a dozen or so years.

The US only appears strong when compared to other industrialised economies as growth in both the Eurozone and Japan is close to zero. Even so in their different ways the slowing of the US and Chinese economies are both contributing to the global economic slowdown. The US seems incapable of growing at even a 2.75 per cent rate, which it has failed to reach for 10 consecutive years. By contrast, China has sustainably grown at something like 8 per cent or above over the same period.

The dominance of policies favouring the private sector is absolute in the US and places a speed limit on growth. The lion’s share of that growth is also captured by big business, the banks and the ultra-rich so that living standards for the majority continue to decline. This is not the case in China where incomes and wages have been rising strongly. Chinese growth could be a little stronger. But the real source of the global slowdown is in the Western economies.

Ukraine: West’s offensive knocked back – but more to follow

The offensive Kiev re-launched in January against pro-Russian controlled areas of eastern Ukraine has so far been rebuffed. Armed units defending the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics have held their ground and in some areas managed to push back the NATO-backed forces. They re-took control of Donetsk airport from which Kiev forces had been shelling the city of Donetsk.

As part of US-coordinated efforts to increase economic and political pressure on Russia, last September’s ceasefire in Ukraine has been abandoned by the West. US special forces already play a significant role and the numbers of these military ‘trainers’ and flow of arms are set to increase. The US administration is threatening to increase large-scale weapons sales. Also given the low morale and desertions amongst fighters conscripted by Kiev, the US will be concerned to prevent these falling into pro-Russian hands

The government in Kiev is increasing the drive to war and pushing ahead with plans to conscript up to 250,000 troops, up from the current 68,000.

In Ukraine’s east the rebel republics are building up their defence forces against the threatened attacks. The population there is not just pro-Russian, but regards itself as Russian. It largely speaks Russian not Ukrainian, uses the Cyrillic not the Latin alphabet and follows Orthodox Christian tradition not Catholic. It remains the case that the most democratic solution to the political differences within Ukraine would be for the differently orientated populations of east and west to separate. But imperialism wants to subjugate the eastern population and secure its territory, so it also rejects Putin’s proposed settlement based on autonomy for eastern Ukraine.

NATO’s project is to move further east, so it announced last week it will be establishing six new command centres across eastern Europe in the coming months, in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to increase military exercises close to Russia’s borders.

This push to bring the US military machine with its missiles up to the border presents a similar threat to Russia as the Soviet missiles arriving in Cuba in 1962 presented to the US. Russia’s population overwhelmingly supports its government standing up to this imperialist pressure.

West European states have largely conceded to the US agenda, despite the economic problems sanctions on Russia cause to several economies including Germany and Italy. Last week’s election in Greece of Syriza, which opposes NATO’s new cold war against Russia, will bolster those arguing against the EU being just a subordinate cypher for US foreign policy.

Labour: right steps up attacks on Miliband – left inspired by Syriza

Since New Year the Labour campaign has largely focussed on issues, such as living standards and health – electoral ground voters consider Labour is strong on. This shift of rhetoric, away from austerity and anti-migrant scapegoating (the first two pledges announced last year) has stopped Labour’s fall in opinion polls. The approximately ten per cent decline (from the low 40s in 2013 to the low 30s) halted and support remained largely level this past month.

If Labour put forward significant measures to defend living standards its support would rise. As a YouGov poll (reported by Left Futures) suggested last week Labour could only gain from being anti-austerity, anti-war and standing up to big business.

As the election gets closer, capital is stepping up its attacks on Labour and Ed Miliband’s leadership. Every policy is denounced which implies greater restrictions (than the Tories propose) on private plunder of public resources. Orchestrated campaigns have condemned suggestions that NHS privatisation might slow down or tuition fees be reduced under Labour.

The Blairites have mobilised to help this assault on Labour. Blair himself, Mandleson, Hutton, Milburn and Johnson have all taken to the media to criticise the Labour campaign. As its leader cannot be changed before 7 May the objective is to undermine the party’s support and aid the Tories.

Following Syriza’s victory in Greece, across the left, including within Labour, anti-austerity views have strengthened. A survey conducted last week by LabourList (blogsite of Labour activists) found that 83 per cent of its readers broadly agree with the 15 left MPs who have called on Labour to adopt a programme that includes state investment, re-nationalisation of rail and trade union rights. The lessons Labour can draw from Syriza’s success are being discussed on the left and the Labour Assembly Against Austerity is hosting a meeting on 25 February on the subject.