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Questioning Parliamentary Politics and Syriza’s Victory

A posting on this webpage entitled “Austerity and the European Radical Left Agenda” (November 2014) raises the following questions: Is questioning the legitimacy of parliamentary politics really a minority position? Is the legitimacy of the electoral process really unquestionable?

The legitimacy of the electoral process is now being questioned practically by voters across the EU. Participation in European elections has steadily declined in recent years to around 43% of the electorate. And in France, Britain, Portugal and The Netherlands the figure is not much more than a third. In much of the East the figure is even lower. This is not just a matter of indolence or indifference but a bitter recognition that the European parliament does not represent the electorate. Voters are powerless to influence decisions that directly affect them – especially economic issues – and they know it.

The situation is hardly much better in the old national parliaments of Western Europe. There too electoral turnouts are in decline and governments are elected by a smaller and smaller proportion of the electorate. In British general elections, for instance, around 70% to 80% of the electorate regularly voted between 1945 and the late 1990s. But in the 2001 election less than 60% bothered to vote and in 2010 only 65% did so and among younger people only 44%. These general figures of voter turnout disguise the fact that in many cities across Britain in 2005 and again in 2010 not much more than half the electorate turned out to vote and in some cases less than half. On what he calls ‘the emptying out of democracy’ see Peter Mair’s important book, Ruling the Void (Verso, 2013).

Voters are increasingly convinced that governments and the major political parties represent not their national populations at all but instead a shadowy international elite of the rich and the powerful. People are convinced of corruption across the upper echelons of the state and their rulers – Conservative, Labour and Liberal-Democrat – are held in furious contempt. MPs used to have local connections to their constituency and often had some kind of career in the ‘real world’. Now they are often professional politicians who seem to have been groomed for a political career from a young age and who have no engagement with the everyday world of their quondam constituents. Have they ever done a proper day’s work in their lives, is the question people mutter about political ‘leaders’ of all parties. As poll after poll reveals, a large proportion of the British electorate feel unrepresented and alienated from a political process that seems a sham, a media exercise. This is the case among traditional Tory voters as much as among traditional Labour voters. The swing towards the Scottish National Party and the possible decimation of Labour in its traditional heartlands of western Scotland is the verdict of large numbers of working-class voters on New Labour. In England UKIP and the Green Party are also attracting support from voters as a protest against the emptiness of New Labour and New Conservatism. The abandonment of policies promised before the election immediately after the election – most blatantly by Tony Blair and Nick Clegg – convinces many voters that election campaigns are exercises in empty rhetoric and that politicians are professional liars.

Syriza looks different – which is probably why it strikes fear in the shrivelled hearts of professional politicians everywhere. From Ed Miliband and the official ranks of the Labour Party in Britain the silence in response to Syriza’s victory has been deafening. But many former Labour supporters I talk to are sympathetic to everything Syriza represents, however mournfully sceptical they are of its success in changing EU policies of austerity. And this is not just a matter of its policies but also of its public style. Syriza politicians do not look or sound like British politicians -- posh boys in smart suits addressing clients or 2nd-hand car salesmen selling a dodgy motor. I apologise to any 2nd-hand car salesmen who are offended by the comparison.

John Seed, February 2015