The Greek election result has meant politicians across Europe are rushing around looking for the manual that will help them make sense of the vote. They need to consider the implications as quickly as possible otherwise they risk their own position. This is particularly acute for parties in the UK with the General Election only 100 days away.
Meaningful far left and far right parties are much more the norm across many European counties than they are here. There are institutional as well as cultural differences at play not least the UK's electoral system. But what the mainstream parties here were also good at doing was forming their own ongoing coalitions. Both the Labour and Conservative parties were able to hold together people. Often groups within parties would have 'robust' discussions and to the outside world these people had little in common with each other. There was, however, often a strand of thinking that kept them bound together in the same party.
These strands have now frayed and people are prepared to look to other parties to represent them. There is also the key issue of a lack of faith in mainstream politicians, a mistrust of their motives and a concern that they have failed to deliver. A look at most opinion polls that explore people's positions on politics reveals this to be the case. Even more so, the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer shows a decline in trust across all institutions - Government, media, NGOs, business. As the introduction to the report suggests, there has been "a plunge of trust in government due to stalemate and perceived incapacity."
One thing that Syriza's win in Greece shows is that if a political party can promise radical action then they can capture the imagination of the voting public. Of course, the stars need to be in alignment as well - an unpopular incumbent, disenchantment with the current policies, the impact of those policies etc. What it does demonstrate is the power of a strong narrative and a 'big idea' or vision. Part of the challenge is that politics is viewed as a more consumerist choice. The electorate have the element of choice in most of the daily lives and are told that real value is delivered by switching - between banks, utilities providers, employers etc. - whilst in politics there is still some surprise that people do not remain loyal. Shopping around politically is another part of modern consumer behaviour.
Despite a number of 'warnings' being issued before the election from politicians across the EU, the actions of the European Central Bank in doing a bit of quantitative easing, none of this was enough to sway the electorate. It may even have provided Syriza with more support.
It all shows our political parties a number of things:
- Europe matters - It is not just the rise of UKIP that the parties have to worry about but a perceived distance between what Europe says and does and what powers the UK has. It also shows that getting input from Europe in advance of an election will not help. The Greek election also shows that you do not have to stick to the main parties, those that might otherwise be seen as being 'at the margins' are real contenders. This will especially the case if Syriza starts to achieve anything. Mainstream parties across the EU will worry about this.
- Big ideas - may need to be considered again. Many politicians stay well away from such things but in this era maybe they need to revisit this as a way to help bind their respective coalitions together.
- Government intervention - the Edelman report shows that there is a wish for regulation, for Government to get involved, but a lack of belief that they will do so effectively. So despite what some commentators would have us believe there does appear to be an appetite for strong governments and intervention where necessary. The free market narrative has dominated to date. This is coming under pressure. The response of many to the crash was 'more market' not less. If Syriza can map out a path that shows that an alternative is an option then that will be a source of pressure on UK parties.
- What a Coalition can look like - Syriza has gone into coalition with the Greek Independents party (variously described as a centre-right, right wing, far-right party or populist). This has not been universally well-received it shows that parties with only a few similarities can come together. They have chosen, rightly or wrongly, to concentrate on those rather than their differences. That makes alliances make straightforward to set-up in the first instance but potentially less stable.
- Beyond 2015 - so far the Labour party only wants to talk about the NHS and the Conservatives only want to talk about the economy / the deficit. At some point Europe will come up, not least UKIP will want to mention it in the TV debates, should they go ahead. Labour appears not to have a strong line yet. The Conservatives could be left facing a Europe that is more concerned with Greece and saving the Euro than any potential renegotiation with the UK.
The Greek elections really show that politics can generate interest and excitement. In their hearts, electorates really want their Governments to govern and to do things. It may suit Nick Clegg to try for honesty with the electorate about can and cannot be achieved by Government but Greece shows that sometimes they want dynamism and action.