British Leftists Are Flocking to Athens for Greece’s Election Party

Quoted @ Vice News, published 24 January 2015

By Charlotte England

Much like the Parthenon, winter sun and decent bars with cheap beer, there’s another thing Greece has that Britain does not: a genuinely left-wing political party that actually stands any chance of getting into power.

For that reason, over the last few days, there has been an exodus of the left from Britain as young comrades stuff themselves into cheap flights headed to Athens for a spot of election tourism. Syriza, Greece’s coalition of the radical left, are expected to come out on top in a snap election on Sunday. The party has gained popular support for its opposition to the austerity that has ripped Greek society apart over the last few years. With UK equivalents being comparatively irrelevant, British socialists can only look on in admiration – hence the pilgrimage to Greece.

“From my perspective, as someone who’s waiting for a wave of radical left-wing politics to come through in the UK, it’s exciting to be somewhere in Europe where this is about to take place,” Michael Segalov, Communications Officer at Sussex University, told me from the Syriza tent in Athens – the party’s temporary election HQ – shouting down a phone at me over music and the multi-lingual chatter of dozens of euro-leftists.

Other people used words like “monumental”, “pivotal”, “critical” and “unprecedented” to describe how they felt about the elections. “I actually think it’s possibly the most important democratic event in Europe in the last 20, 30 years,” said Max Shanly, part of the UK Labour Party’s long-suffering left-wing, who is studying at Oxford.

Friday’s crack-of-dawn Stansted to Athens flight became some sort of bizarre, mile-high congress of the British far-left with Ryan Air as the hosts. I was aboard with some friends. It felt like a school trip if everyone in your class was the kid with the Che Guevara badge. When I went to the loo I at least vaguely recognised most of the people I bumped into from left-wing meetings or protests over the last few years. On our flight alone, I counted about 20 British leftists, all travelling to Athens because of the elections.

“Me, my mate and Owen Jones were sat on a plane that was delayed from Gatwick,” said Tom Harris, who was in Athens with a group from student anti-cuts group the National Campaign Against Cuts and Fees, when we got chatting outside the Syriza campaign tent on Friday night.

On the plane I spoke to Larry from London as he struggled to deal with the inadequate leg-room. I asked him if there was anything odd about becoming a sightseer at somebody else’s election. He thought that was unfair. “Most are familiar with the stereotypes: ‘Adrenaline-junkie riot-tourists’, ‘egoists’ who derive pride from ‘being there’, ‘pious do-gooders’, ‘people who take themselves very seriously’. ‘Fuck that lot’,” he said. But he questioned why it is better to go abroad on a business trip or for a lad’s tour, contesting, “this idea that the only ‘legitimate’ way to travel is for work – for the financial profit of yourself of others – or for the normalised hedonism of a conventional holiday.

“What’s going on here isn’t bad,” he said. “No one’s claiming individual excellence from a weekend trip to Athens. The Brits I’ve seen are just interested and supportive people.”

The author’s friend who brought a cycle helmet for protection. In Athens people are worried about a violence reaction from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn if Syriza win the election

But are a load of politics-geeks who don’t speak Greek they actually going to do anything useful, really? “I don’t think they’re going to be able to contribute anything, that’s a bit pie in the sky,” said Craig McVey, from Warwick University. “People who are supporting Syriza have been doing the legwork since 2004, so I don’t think that young British Leftists who are going for a weekend to – I don’t know – stuff envelopes or whatever people are intending to do, is going to have any significant impact on the election.”

That said, Elias Panteleakos, Syriza Youth Coordinator, was pretty positive when I asked him what he thought about all the Brits turning up. “Of course it’s a good thing,” he said, “this international movement of solidarity, for us, it’s very important.”

Elias pointed out that it wasn’t just people from the UK who had turned up: leftists have come from all over Europe to support Syriza.

“[Foreign EU nationals showing solidarity] will say that the crisis is not the Greek problem, it’s not a Greek phenomenon. It’s a European problem,” he said. “So the struggle we are giving here in Greece is the same struggle we are giving in Spain, UK, Ireland, Italy”.

I ran into Matteo, part of the youth wing of the Italian Communist Party. Matteo said he had come with 27 comrades to show solidarity, but, also, because he hoped to join in the party “when” Syriza win. For lots of Brits, too, coming to Athens was partly for fun. “For me it’s very much a holiday in an exciting time and an exciting place,” said Michael.

Many of the British lefties were determined to learn something from their much more successful Greek counterparts. “The methods of organisation that the left have been building in Greece are really quite remarkable,” said Max, “they’ve built unity among one another, whereas the left in Britain tends to split over, you know, if you want to put milk in the cup of tea first, or you put the water in first”.

Most people that I spoke to agreed that if Syriza do get in, repercussions are likely to reverberate all around Europe. “I think it will prove that there is an alternative. It will also prove that ideas on the more radical left of the spectrum can win elections,” said Max.

Of course, left-wingers travelling abroad to support causes is nothing new, really. Craig reckoned that political travel is only novel to those under 30, for whom international politics tends to mean telling someone across the Atlantic to check their privilege over Twitter.

Joana Ramiro, who is reporting from Athens for the British Communist daily ‘paper theMorning Star – but said she intends to put on her “activist hat” after work – agreed that there was historical precedent. “There’s something to be said about ‘revolutionary tourism’, quote unquote,” she said. “You know, it was very natural to show solidarity back in the 1930s. The Spanish Civil War is a great example of that. Even if we’re not taking up arms and being a proper brigade in the old school sense, we’re still showing the Greeks that across the channel there are people who support them and will push their governments to be more lenient.”

Thankfully the Spain analogy only goes so far, with the vibe that of a holiday and no attritional trench warfare to speak of. In a sad irony, my Airbnb host, a travel writer, told me he’d pretty much gone out of business since the crisis, because Greeks can’t afford to travel abroad themselves anymore. Nevertheless, the Greek left seems pretty chuffed to have likeminded people from across Europe join them, and if Syriza wins, presumably everyone will celebrate by drinking enough booze to give Greece’s beleaguered economy a helping hand.