Arriving back in the UK, the Greek financial crisis is fresh in my mind and entirely absent from the election campaign. It should not be. The consequences may well be profound for the whole European Union. Mind you, at the moment, you would be hard put to find any politicians prepared to admit that the economics situation is anything other than 'business as usual'.
Most of the press coverage of Greece has been irritating. The bedrock of commonplace analysis is an atavistic view of Greeks as picturesque foreigners in the grip of Mediterranean vices. The reality of corruption and the monstrous bureaucratic inefficiency of the state are undisputed, not least by the Greeks themselves who frequently despair of them. So too is the habit of tax avoidance. After all, the justifications go, why give money to the state when it will simply be stolen? The crisis is real and home-grown. But amidst all the talk of 'lavish' pensions, 'ghost workers' and state jobs for life, where is the coverage of the low wages, the rocketing cost of living, growing poverty, and of the endemic insecurity that provokes people to fight back in defence of their rights?
This lack of respect for Greece makes it easy to indulge in the language of austerity. The government is told to make ever deeper cuts, accept severe and 'painful' measures and make profound sacrifices in return for financial rescue, despite the importance of keeping Greece afloat to the whole European Union. Greeks are to be punished for their sins.
Surely something is missing from this discourse? What has happened to the concept of 'social Europe'? Where is there talk of investing in Greece? Where is the support for the ordinary people whose livelihoods and businesses will be devastated by these measures? Where is the help for the Greek government in reforming and restructuring the state? What about the search for ways to control the markets to prevent speculative attacks on countries? Why are we not talking of investment and reconstruction, avoiding rather than provoking recession and the creation of strong welfare states? Here, in a microcosm, is the crisis of European social democracy, a crisis that is reflected in our own election campaign.
In Britain too, the language is punitive. Calls for vengeance against those who brought us so low are commonplace and plastered on billboards across the country. Bankers? Good god no. Benefit 'cheats' are the villains of the day. (And for a depiction of reality read this excellent article by David Conn, breaking away from his usual beat of football finance).
My pre-election reading is a fine book about the politics of Gordon Brown by one of my old mates from Hull, Simon Lee. It is a little unnerving to read such a serious book by someone you have seen leaping around a football ground like a demented lunatic making gestures at Arsenal supporters, but it is an intelligent analysis for all that. Simon may not have the stylistic flair of the more celebrated Andrew Rawnsley, nor does he deal with any of the gossip about Brown's personality, instead he treats Brown as a substantial political figure, attracted to an insubstantial model of political economy.
Simon charts Brown's intellectual journey from supply-side socialism to supply-side liberalism and his attempt to implement it through a centralised, technocratic model of governance. This meant the acceptance of a neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. And when that orthodoxy failed, what then was there to replace it?
This is the nub of the lack of substance of much of the current election campaign, the absence of alternative political economies. This should be the historic role of the Labour Party. It was created and sustained to act as an advocate of democratic socialism or social democracy, the advancement of collective goals within a capitalist economy and liberal democratic polity. Instead, we have a neo-liberal consensus with differences at the margins between the competing parties. I am not naïve enough to suggest that those differences do not matter. They do, they are real and they will determine how I vote. However, without a choice between coherent and realistic alternative philosophies elections can be reduced to political beauty contests and in one of those, with its decidedly unattractive leadership, Labour is at a disadvantage.
Simon Lee depicts what he sees as the main flaws in the political economy and democratic practice of New Labour and sees them as the platform for the rise of a neo-Thatcherite Conservative Party. I don't think that any of us thought that the Labour Party could be outflanked by a party that is actually supposed to embody Liberalism; the Liberal Democrats. But then, by being unable to offer a social democratic alternative to neo-liberalism, Labour's position was open to challenge by anyone credible describing themselves as 'progressive'.
The one thing that the Liberal Democrat surge has done is to open debates about the nature of British democracy; it has done nothing to question the prevailing economic orthodoxy. This process should form the basis of Labour renewal. I was hoping for it as a consequence of the victory of 1997. Perhaps now it will be the result of the defeat of 2010.