By Charlie Kimber
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Can Portugal’s government give us hope?

This article is over 6 years, 10 months old
Issue 2569
Portugals prime minister, Antonio Costa of the Socialist Party
Portugal’s prime minister, Antonio Costa of the Socialist Party (Pic: Party of European Socialists)

What do the experiences of other left wing governments tell us about the possibilities for a future Jeremy Corbyn Labour government?

Several gloomy examples demonstrate the way big business, the banks and international institutions seek to undermine and destroy any attempt at thoroughgoing reform.

In Greece the radical-sounding Syriza government was pummelled by the EU and the bosses and implemented appalling cuts worse than its Tory predecessor.

In France the presidency of the Socialist Party’s Francis Hollande from 2012 saw continued implementation of austerity and racism, clearing the way for the growth of the fascist National Front and the electoral collapse of the Socialists.

In Venezuela a much more serious challenge to the ruling class, backed at points by mass mobilisations, the reforms generated by diverting more of the oil revenues to the poor, came to an end. This is because there wasn’t a challenge to capitalism itself, the right instituted sabotage, the oil price slumped and the government turned to deals with neoliberalism.

But now there is an apparently more hopeful example—Portugal. In 2015 Antonio Costa’s Socialist Party formed a government after the election saw left parties get more seats between them the incumbent Tories. It reversed some of the austerity programmes, with positive results.

Guardian journalist Owen Jones wrote last week that “Portugal has increased public investment, reduced the deficit, slashed unemployment and sustained economic growth. We were told this was impossible and, frankly, delusional.

“Europe’s left should use the Portuguese experience to bring austerity across the eurozone to a halt. In Britain, Labour can feel more emboldened in breaking with the Tories’ economic order.

“Millions of us held that there was indeed an alternative. Now we have the proof.”

What’s the reality?

Catarina Martins is the coordinator of the Left Bloc, a party to the left of the Socialists. It won 10 percent of the vote in 2015 and sustains the Socialists in government—although not in a coalition.

In a recent interview in New Left Review, Martins says the government has achieved some important gains. “Changes to the abortion laws, adoption by same-sex couples. There we now have some of the most progressive legislation in Europe.

“Some of the attacks on the rights of workers have been stopped, along with the cuts to public sector wages and to pensions. Four public holidays abolished under the previous government have now been restored.

“The transport systems of Porto and Lisbon have been returned to public ownership.”


Instead of implementing the EU’s demands for turbocharged austerity and massive further cuts, pensions have risen a little. The minimum wage has gone up 10 percent.

These measures are partly explained because, says Martins, “The EU softened its stance towards Portugal out of fear after Brexit”.

But poverty and youth unemployment remain very high. Public services are starved of cash. And more tests are coming soon.

Martins says, “There are still measures waiting to be fulfilled, but they are the ones that demand the sharpest confrontation with the European Union.”

The signs are not good. After the recent collapse of Novo Banco bank the government gave it huge guarantees then handed it to a private firm.

As the demands from the bosses and the EU grow, it will take immense pressure from outside parliament to stop Costa returning to full-fledged pro-business polices.

Portugal shows there are political choices for any government. Austerity is not inevitable. But without mass struggle the gains will be highly constrained and open to speedy reverse.

It’s unlikely that a military coup would topple Corbyn the day after he enters 10 Downing Street—partly because Labour’s programme is limited.

Nor is it the case that Labour can change nothing. Each and every positive reform is worth fighting for.

But there would be pressure from the rich through the bond market, a push for interest rate rises, currency manipulation, investment strikes and so on.

Either Corbyn would compromise with big business, reining in the changes, or he would face intensified resistance from the unelected and unaccountable bosses and elements of the state.

We want the Tories out and Corbyn in government as soon as possible.

But in Portugal or Britain the key is struggle in the streets and the workplaces, and that takes socialist organisation independent of the parties of government.

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