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Len Arthur looks to Greece and Spain for tips on how to turn the Welsh anti-austerity movement into a political force for change.

by Len Arthur

As Tim Holmes graphically describes in an earlier piece in this series (here), Syriza can be seen to equate with hope in Greece. Along with Podemos in Spain, both parties are a popular left response to the policies of austerity that have brought misery and injustice to large sections of these countries’ populations, with the weakest paying for the crisis created by the rich and powerful. In the process, they have swept aside the traditional social democratic parties which have largely signed up to austerity.

There has been extensive reporting and analysis of the rise of Syriza and Podemos, as well as analysis and political soul-searching around the first decisions made by the Syriza government. Some of the best – the most sympathetic and up to date – analysis is available in Red Pepper magazine. The intention of this piece, however, is to bring the debate a little closer to home and further explore issues that Tim raised about the potential of these two parties to provide lessons for unity and the fight against austerity in Wales.

The unjust and unequal impact of the austerity policies that have been implemented since the financial crisis have created the issues that have led to the rise of Syriza and Podemos. And three key actions have made it possible for the two groupings to relate these issues to a left-wing, progressive and largely socialist analysis that has gained increasing popular support:

  1. Unity of large sections of the Left has been achieved by focusing on the political arguments that connect the many varied experiences of, and resistance to, austerity. This has made it possible to challenge the national and EU implementers of austerity policies.
  2. A range of direct action resistance has been employed, from mobilisations – demonstrations, strikes, occupations and industrial action – across to solidarity work, such as community support in medical centres and the provision of food relief.
  3. The two parties have directly challenged the politics of austerity by participating in the electoral process.

None of this has been easy; extensive negotiation and compromise, as well as sheer hard work and commitment, have made it happen.

So what about us in Wales and the UK?

The financial crisis has been costly, with as much as £2 trillion – almost one year’s UK GDP – lost through output decline and money used to bail out banks. The coalition government is intending to cut spending to levels last seen in the 1930s. The costs have been passed down to the working class – those who depend on selling their labour to survive – in lost benefits, social services and real wages and working conditions. The Welsh budget is due a real terms cut of 18% by 2018 compared with 2008. This, together with cuts in welfare support, will mean an annual loss to the average family in Wales of over £5000 – and more for low-income households. We are seeing a tsunami of cuts working through councils and education. The NHS in Wales will continue to struggle to cope. Aditya Chakrabortty described the situation as ‘private despair’ in a recent Guardian article.

Issues of injustice and inequality continue – what about the left response?

Here in Wales and the UK the three key conditions for a popular left response – political unity and practical unity in direct action and in elections – barely exists, but the potential does. The coming election has encouraged division, but the fight against austerity will continue after the election and from these circumstances a political regroupment could take place.

For left unity to happen, just saying no to austerity is not sufficient: an alternative programme is required. As austerity policies are our government’s response to the structural problems of capitalism, our alternatives need to address these. This immediately plunges us into the reform v revolution debate – see the ISJ debate for example. But this dichotomy is too simple. A key question is one of trajectory: we always need to ask to what extent our acts of resistance – of saying no – can be a bridge toward establishing our alternative collective control over economic processes.

The concept of our frontier of control helps make this link. We defend agreements at work to limit employers’ power. We defend collective provision of education and the NHS against privatisation. The coalition government want to roll back the state – we want to roll back the market and private control through transitional demands and actions. We can act to do this now – by building the future in the present through creating cooperatives, for example, as well as through standing in elections on a political programme of production for need not profit.

You can start to see the picture – by linking saying no to austerity to an alternative programme, a political trajectory can be developed that also involves practical as well as representational politics. This can move the frontier of control in our direction, and that has been achieved by Syriza and Podemos. But as Costas Lapavitsas argued in the Guardian recently in relation to the dilemmas now facing Syriza, the frontier of control will stretch only so far and then capital will respond with all its power to stop the process. A political party with very popular support is then needed to take up the challenge.

There are many on the left in Wales who should now start to talk about taking this project forward as soon as the election is over: we will be needed.

We feature further reviews and analysis in the magazine. See our contents pages in the excerpts section and you can buy issues here.