Notes From the Margins…

Spain goes Left: Britain turns Right

  • May 31, 2015
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I’ve just come back from a week’s walking in the Axarquia mountains in Andalucia.  My trip didn’t allow much time for blogging, or for any commentary on the remarkable results of last weekend’s Spanish municipal and regional elections, but it was thrilling and inspiring to witness Ada Colau on television acknowledging her victory over the conservative-nationalist mayor of Barcelona Xavier Trias.   After all, it’s not everyday that a former anti-poverty activist who has previously been arrested for taking part in anti-eviction sit ins goes to win a mayoral election in one of the great European cities.

The triumph of Colau’s coalition Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) was one of a series of victories for the Indignados-inspired Podemos (We Can) or Podemos-supported leftist coalitions in regions and cities across Spain.   In Madrid the conservative Partido Popular failed to secure a majority for the first time in 20 years, paving the way for a marriage-of-convenience between between the Spanish Socialist Party and another Indignados-inspired coalition Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now), that could end up with the 71-year-old former communist Manuela Carmena becoming mayor.

Across Spain Podemos or its new centre-right counterpart Ciudadanos (Citizens) came  in  third or fourth.    These results have been described as a ‘political earthquake’, which is something of an exaggeration when you consider that the two main parties still won 55 percent of the vote – a drop of only ten percent from the last elections in 2011. Both parties have been punished by the electorate, but not decisively so.

The Partido Popular remains powerful, despite a series of high-level corruption scandals, and the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) has not yet undergone the process of  ‘Pasokification’ despite the challenge to its left from Podemos.

Nevertheless the main establishment paper El País has described  – with more alarm than enthusiasm –  the results as an ‘important change in the national political map, with a clear turn towards the left’.  A staunch support of the Spanish Socialist Party, El País has issued a stern warning  to  the PSOE not ‘to allow itself to be carried away by the winds of radicalism’ towards Podemos, on the grounds that such a drift would further imperil Spain’s ‘stability’.

The problem is that for growing numbers of Spanish voters, ‘stability’ is not what it is cracked up to be, and a restive population sickened by corruption and austerity is beginning to dream bigger dreams than the two-party establishment wants them to.

The principal driving forces behind this transformation are clear: the economic crisis and the social consequences of ‘austerity’ – all of which has highlighted the mindboggling corruption of the Spanish ruling classes and the collusion or acquiescence of the two main parties that has made both things possible.   This has opened up  new spaces for progressive politics across the country to an extent that has not been seen since the early years of the post-Franco transition or even further back to the Spanish Republic.

This is not a revolutionary left – whatever that concept even means nowadays.   Podemos’ program has been criticized by the right for being utopian and unrealistic, and from the left for not being  sufficiently anti-capitalist.    There is a very real possibility that it will go into coalition with the PSOE – a party that Podemos has always described as a ‘fossil’ in the Spanish political ‘caste.’

That will not be a comfortable relationship, and may end up watering down a political program that is is already vague and a little quirky, such as the ‘secret post office box’  that will enable civil servants to denounce corruption without exposing themselves; a ‘parallel administration’  over the public sector that will ‘restore powers that have been privatised or outsourced’; and a ‘law of popular normative instruments’ that will ensure that extraparliamentary ‘popular legislative initiatives’ are dealt with in the Spanish parliament.

Others Podemos  proposals are  pretty radical in the current context: the restructuring of the national debt; a change in the ‘current conditions of governance of the euro’; a commitment to full employment; a 35 hour week; increases in public spending; greater accountability of the European Central Bank; debt ‘pooling’ between countries; a moratorium on the national debt; restructuring or cancellation of mortgage debts including financial repayments to anyone whose property has been seized by banks; economic sanctions on property owners with ten more empty properties; the closure of Spain’s grim immigrant internment centres (CIEs).

This is hardly a revolutionary program, but it is already enough to cause unease amongst the rulers of a country where the ghosts of the Civil War are always lurking in the background, ready to be brought out to terrify voters who look too critically at the status quo.  There is, for example, a striking conceptual similarity between the anxiety of  El País regarding  a Socialist/Podemos threat to ‘stability’ and the suggestion its great rival  El Mundo – virtually the Partido Popular’s house organ – that the PP and the PSOE might have to govern as a coalition in order to ‘protect the constitution.’

Right now it is difficult to guess who will go into coalition with whom or what the results might be.   But whatever the parties do, it is clear that the Spanish electorate is turning left, not right, in search of solutions to the catastrophe of ‘austerity’, and the fact that it has done so through temporary alliances and ad hoc coalitions between different groups may also point towards a new progressive future, shaped by  the muliplicity of voices that formed Ada Colau’s Guanyem Barcelona (Let’s Win Back Barcelona) civic movement, with its call for

a genuine metropolitan democracy, which forces political representatives to obey while they lead. A decentralized democracy with direct elections of councilmen and women in each district, with oversight of budgets, in which citizen initiatives and binding referendums are used to make shared, legitimate decisions.

This desire for a deepening and widening of the democratic process is crucial to Spain’s leftward drift, where inequality and austerity are producing new forms of popular mobilisation and participation in local, municipal and national politics. All this could not be more different from the UK – with the exception of Scotland – where the political momentum has shifted towards the right and the rebellion against ‘the establishment’ has taken the form of rightwing populism.

Here  an unbound Tory government is now proposing to eliminate the ability of working men and women to defend or improve their pay and conditions.   It is proposing to carry out welfare reforms that will force some 40,000 children into poverty.  It is about to introduce draconian and irrational restrictions of free speech to prevent ‘extremist’ views from being expressed without even taking the trouble to define what extremism even means.

These developments must be resisted, but it is clear that the principal  ‘left-of-centre’ opposition has no interest in doing so.   On the contrary the contenders for the Labour Party leadership are engaged in a frantic, embarrassing and intellectually vacuous attempt to grovel at the feet of ‘business’ and the rightwing press rather than fight for the people they should be fighting for.

In David Hare’s The Absence of War, the Kinnock (Miliband?)-like contender describes the Labour Party as ‘the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people”s lives for the good’.

Whatever truth there may once have been in such an assertion, the dire quality of the contenders now jostling for power is the reflection of a dying and clueless party  dominated by careerist politicians  that is now prepared to trade its  better traditions for a few Tory marginals.

Many on the left have looked forward to the death of the Labour Party, as if its downfall will open the floodgates for progressive politics.  That collapse now looks more likely than it has for many years, and it may not produce the desired result.   But regardless of  whether Labour ‘Pasokifies’ or not and regardless of what the benefits of that outcome might be, its current intellectual and political bankruptcy means that resistance and opposition to Lord Snooty and His Pals must come from elsewhere.

And in these depressing times, the new combination of street-level protest and participatory democracy that is now unfolding in Spain can point to where such resistance might come from, and the different forms that it might take.




  1. Andreu

    31st May 2015 - 10:56 pm

    Just a correction Matt, the current mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, is not socialist but from CiU, conservative nationalists, now in favor of Catalan independence. 🙂

    • Matt

      1st Jun 2015 - 7:46 am

      Thanks Andreu. Corrected!

  2. Nigel Baldwin

    1st Jun 2015 - 7:58 pm

    At the time when Huey “Kingfish” Long was Governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, it used to be said that “…You can make corruption illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular”. If it’s the intention of certain of the Tories to emasculate Trade Unions in Britain, they may destroy them structurally, but the concept will remain very much alive. All that repression would achieve would be to re-create the conditions that gave rise to Trade Unions in the first place.

  3. Frank

    12th Feb 2016 - 3:34 am

    Hola! I’ve been following your weblog for a while now and finally got the
    courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Houston Tx!
    Just wanted to say keep up the great work!

    • Matt

      12th Feb 2016 - 2:54 pm

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for the shout out, Frank.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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