Greek lessons for the B.C. NDP?

Alexis Tsipras, head of Greece’s Syriza party. | Photo courtesy of Fraktion DIE LINKE im Bundestag

Alexis Tsipras, head of Greece’s Syriza party. | Photo courtesy of Fraktion DIE LINKE im Bundestag

Syriza has won the elections in Greece. A new left party, they’ve gone in just over a decade from the fringes of political life all the way to power, swept in on a promise to end years of vicious austerity policies.

This historic win for Syriza has alarmed right-wingers and bankers around the world. It has also sent a bolt of hope through the political left everywhere.

For my entire adult life (and I’m in my late thirties), we have lived under the political and economic orthodoxy crudely summed up by the late Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative.”

People and parties of the political left, at least in Western Europe and North America, adapted to this dismal reality. So it was that just a few years ago, at the height of the austerity measures being imposed on Greece, then-NDP President Brian Topp visited Athens and praised his social democratic counterparts in PASOK, the governing party at the time. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Topp asserted that PASOK, and sister parties like the French Socialists and the U.K. Labour Party, represented “moderate, responsible, mainstream progressive parties” who were putting forward “the sensible, realistic alternative to conservative misrule.”

Less than four years later, PASOK’s support has completely collapsed, replaced by a new type of left party willing to actually confront the politics of austerity. So while we know bankers and right-wingers will now panic about Syriza’s victory, it should also be a wake-up call to the NDP.

Assuming Syriza is able to form and hold together a government (as of our deadline, it wasn’t clear whether they would form a majority government or need coalition partners), it will be the most clearly left-wing administration in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

It’s true that the economic conditions in Greece, and indeed all across southern Europe, are far more disastrous than here. Nevertheless, their example of rapid political change has universal implications, and lessons, in our globalized world dominated by finance capital.

In our grossly unequal world, it is neither sensible nor responsible to propose mere tinkering. The economic system is failing the vast majority. It’s producing extreme wealth for a few and growing precarity and debt for the rest. Even in B.C., obviously still relatively stable and prosperous in comparison to southern Europe, inequality is endemic: one in five children live in poverty, and basics like housing, child care and post-secondary education are increasingly unaffordable.

In each of the past three elections, the B.C. NDP has been extremely cautious, promising no fundamental economic changes and remaining non-committal about reversing the neo-liberal measures taken by the B.C. Liberals. This was true of the campaigns led by Carole James in 2005 and 2009, but also of the shocking defeat in 2013, when Adrian Dix looked poised to win a landslide. (These campaign decisions, to be fair, were conditioned by a very conservative media landscape here in B.C..)

To actually defeat the B.C. Liberals’ agenda, the political left in B.C. needs to challenge the neo-liberal “common sense.” We need to explain that the only “sensible” and “realistic” way to close the inequality gap is to implement aggressively progressive policies. Just for starters, the B.C. NDP should focus on championing the $15/hr minimum wage being advocated by the B.C. Federation of Labour, and demand the implementation of a comprehensive, affordable child care program here in B.C.. Campaigning on these two issues would be a big step in the direction of rebuilding a left that presents its progressive economic ideas confidently.

We should all watch Greece and southern Europe carefully. Already new left parties, well to the left of traditional social democracy, are forming and gaining popularity, from Slovenia to Spain.

The message of Syriza’s victory is clear: there is an alternative. Or, at least, we must try to forge an alternative, against all obstacles.

By 2017, the next scheduled provincial election, the B.C. Liberals will have governed this province for 16 years. It often feels like there’s no alternative to the party of big business. But now we know better.

Our province is not destined to be ruled eternally by a coalition of corporate interests. We are not doomed to forever be plagued by child poverty, inequality and unaffordable housing.

There is an alternative for B.C.. We just have to make it.