Although my boring intellectual head tells me otherwise, my immediate feeling on hearing the news from Greece this morning was hopefulness. The news that Syriza, the radical left party that campaigned on an anti-austerity ticket, had won a decisive majority cheered my Monday morning.
Might this mean that austerity is dealt with differently? Might there be a true socialist approach to the problem? If so, and if it truly proves to show another way, might the sun-starved northern Europeans, most of all the UK, try to change as well?
I heard a Greek man in his thirties being interviewed last week, and he was asked if he had children. His answer? “No of course not, only the rich and the stupid have children in Greece these days.” This is not just a Greek problem. There are increasing numbers of young UK couples delaying starting families, or deciding that they can only afford one child. Many are forced into this decision by the housing trap – they are possibly still living with parents, or are renting a one bedroom flat with no prospect of being able to afford to rent a larger one. Alternatively if they are in the diminishing minority who can afford to step onto the housing ladder then again they find themselves unable to afford children.
Austerity means very different things to different people. I doubt that the Chancellor, the Prime Minister, and other senior politicians have noticed a change in their material lifestyles as a result of austerity. The comfortably off may be several hundred pounds a year worse off (recent figures stated that the rich had fared worst in absolute monetary terms, and the poor had fared worst in percentage of actual income terms), but such results of austerity have presumably merely affected their instructions to their stockbrokers.
The comfortably off have been more careful with use of their heating, may have changed their cars to more economical models, have decided against a second holiday and so on – I suspect that many lifelong Tories who support austerity are in this category.
As income decreases so do the real effects of austerity increase. A shocking report from the Joseph Rowntree foundation suggests that 40% British families are too poor to play a part in society, and that a couple with two children needs a minimum joint income of £40,800 to cross that threshold. For a single person the figure is £16,284.
It is a definition of the income required to have not just food, shelter and clothes, but also to be able to be a participant in society.
The definition, reached in discussion with the public through focus groups, looks at what a household needs to be integrated in society and has been used in the past as a benchmark for the living wage.
It includes, for instance, the ability to pay for a week’s holiday in the UK, or a second-hand car for families with children. It assumes no cigarettes or visits to the pub.
Even more worryingly these are average figures, and the report acknowledges that the situation is worse in London, and in certain other geographical areas of the UK.
These 40% are hit hard by austerity. For them it doesn’t mean deciding whether a skiing holiday is affordable, or whether to eat out at a cheaper restaurant. It means deciding whether to have heating or eating, whether to feed the children in preference to yourself. It means that you can’t go for a better paid job (or a job at all) because you have no means of travelling the 10 miles to the job. It means that your children may be singled out at school for being poor – as my teacher friends tell me, there is a hierarchy of poverty and children have an unerring eye for the poorest, the most vulnerable.
In Greece and Spain unemployment amongst young people has reached 58% and 57% respectively. In Italy it is 40%. This is no longer a problem for southern Europe – the rates in the UK and France are 20% and 24%. This is a very large disaffected group with energy and untapped potential. It is also a group of young people whose teenage years have been blighted by austerity and all the deprivation that goes with it.
I am hopeful that Syriza will be able to tap into the general disaffection that pervades not only in Greece but throughout Europe (with the possible exception of Germany). If they really can implement policies that are fair, that shrink the wealth gap and find a way out of austerity that penalises the rich more than the poor they will do well.
My hope is laced with a strong measure of caution after hearing of the coalition arrangements in Greece. Syriza fell two seats short of absolute majority (149 out of 300 seats), and have announced that they will govern in coalition with the Greek Independents, a small right wing group (13 seats). Golden Dawn, the far right group only lost one seat so retain 17 seats. The far right political groups hold attraction for the young unemployed – I suggest that it is the same sort of attraction held by radical fundamentalist Islamic groups such as IS.
Our current governments across Europe are failing us – or rather failing the poor, the young, and those of ethnic minority. Syriza has been successfully elected because (I suggest) it has given a voice to the majority rather than to the elite. It is time to treat all our citizens as equal – not through lip service, but in reality.