Making the left electable again

Few Greeks would hail either Tony Blair or Bill Clinton as big political leaders – for it would not be politically correct to do so. But is that really so? There is little doubt that Blair’s image has been irreparably marred by Britain’s alliance with Washington in the Iraq war and the Labor leader’s inexplicable dedication to US President George W. Bush. Similarly, in the minds of most Balkan people, Clinton has been identified with the Kosovo intervention which encouraged ethnic Albanian separatism and upset the status quo in the region. Nevertheless, future historians will not question that they were both historic leaders, with courage and clear vision. Blair and Clinton lifted the center-left from the misery of the 1960s when it was a sidelined force, largely cut off from society. Both politicians understood that identifying the center-left with fringe or alternative movements went against the values of the majority. It’s easy to accuse them of compromising their ideological beliefs but had it not been for them, the hegemony of Thatcherism would continue while Bush would probably have run against another George McGovern. Blair and Clinton realized that ideological purity does not go hand-in-hand with political power. Their paths were not without obstacles. The biggest challenge came from within their own the parties. Blair won the political bet by ditching all sorts of extreme leftists, Trotskyists, or unionists who saw the party as a branch of the Third International. Clinton shifted the Democrats to the political center, isolating those who wanted to put same-sex marriage at the center of his preelection campaign. Clinton, that charismatic leader, knew that this would charm some people who would anyway vote for his party but it cost him the majority of simple voters in Missouri or Texas. Greek politicians have something to learn form the careers of the Anglo-Saxon duo. In order to succeed, a political leader must first get a firm grip on the reins of the party and have a clear ideological message. That is something the former socialist leader Costas Simitis failed to understand. He paid the price when he reneged on his ambitious reform plans to narrow partisan interests. It is also something that New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis ignored in 2000 when he could have renewed the image of his party and inject it with a modern ideological identity. And it is certainly not what PASOK leader George Papandreou is doing now as he sticks to an old-style socialist opposition that does not suit him on an ideological, tactical or aesthetic level.