Wednesday, 28 May 2014

How the rise of Podemos in Spain should be an inspiration for the progressive left in the UK

With the extreme right scoring victories all across the continent, the European election results were a bitter disappointment to anyone looking for genuine alternatives to the right-wing Thatcherite economic policies that have dominated European politics for the last two decades.

On the bright side, there were a few rays of hope. One of the very brightest being the spectacular rise of the Podemos (We Can) party in Spain, which finished as the fourth party in Spain despite only having been founded in March 2014, just 10 weeks before the election.


The neoclassical economic models predicted ever increasing prosperity and stability if the governments of Europe embarked on a spree of privatisations and financial sector deregulations, but this prescription of free market ideology resulted in the 2007-08 global financial sector insolvency crisis.

By the time the global economic crisis hit, the neoliberal consensus had become ossified as the global economic orthodoxy, meaning that, after they got over the initial shock of the crisis they didn't see coming, the political and economic establishment reverted to type and presented exactly the same neoliberal policies that had caused the crisis as the solution to the crisis, simply by rebranding them as "austerity".

A crisis the political and economic establishment utterly failed to predict should have triggered a paradigm shift, with politicians and academics throwing out their old neoclassical textbooks and searching out new ideas from the heterodox economists who had been driven to the margins by adherents of the neoclassical orthodoxy. Instead of doing this, they quickly reverted to type, using the crisis as an excuse to intensify the speed and scale of free market reforms.

The reaction of the ruling PP party in Spain (they're like the Spanish Tory party) has been to gleefully impose free market reforms, enforce massive cuts in social spending (especially in education) and to attack workers rights. As a result of these ideological reforms, the unemployment crisis has gone from bad to worse in Spain. The youth unemployment rate is significantly above 50% and it has stayed that bad since early 2012. The general rate of unemployment is above 25%*. These figures are totally unsustainable, and the negative social consequences of such high unemployment are immeasurably vast.

After making all of these cuts, and doing nothing to alleviate the unemployment problem, the Spanish government then added insult to injury by handing a huge €19 billion bailout to an insolvent Spainsh bank called Bankia**.

15M - Real Democracy Now - Indignados

Whilst the youth of the UK were using the police shooting of Mark Duggan as an excuse to set about trashing and looting their own communities, the youth of Spain took a different approach. They organised massive peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins all over the country.

The reaction of the Spanish establishment to this growing peaceful insurgency was to use the police as a militia in order to break up the protests and intimidate people from joining in.

When these events weren't being repressed by the state they featured policy forming committees, petition signings, music and street theatre. When these peaceful demonstrations were repressed by the state, they turned into chaotic bloodbaths.

It soon became clear that these "indignados" protests couldn't just be shut down by brute force, so the Spanish government tabled new legislation to essentially revoke the right to peaceful protest by imposing fines of up to 30,000€ on protesters for committing "offenses against Spain".

In April 2014 Amnesty International stated that "The excessive use of force by Spanish police and plans to strengthen repressive legislation are a damning indictment of the Spanish government’s determination to crush peaceful protest".


Despite the concerted efforts of the Spanish establishment to crush this popular protest movement, they have clearly failed, because on the 11th of March 2014 the indignados movement transferred itself from the streets to the political arena with the formation of the Podemos political party. 

Just ten weeks after the formation of the party they stood in the European elections and picked up 1.2 million votes (8%) to finish fourth and bag five MEPs. The party that finished above them in third place is the United Left party almost tripled their vote to bag six MEPs. Both of these progressive left parties look set to join the left-wing European parliamentary group led by Alexis Tsipras of Syriza.

To go from nothing to the fourth most popular political party in Spain in less than three months is nothing short of incredible. It is a remarkable achievement that should act as an inspiration to the progressive left all over Europe.


The Podemos policy document is 36 pages long and divided into six sections (if you read Spanish you can view it here).

1. Economic reforms
Introduction of a Universal Basic Income, renationalisation of strategic infrastructure and services, financial sector reforms, early retirement schemes, measures to promote the growth of small businesses, a serious clampdown on tax-dodging.

2. Promoting liberty
Increased use of referendums, restrictions on lobbying activities, public accountability of political parties, freedom from state surveillance, protection of the rights of expression, association, protest and political participation.

3. Promoting equality
Equal access to health, equal access to other public services, elimination of gender inequality, reversal of the privatisation of the education system, reform of university education, introduction of a right to a "dignified life", guarantees for women's reproductive rights.

4. Promoting fraternity

Promoting political participation, a referendum on Spanish withdrawal from NATO.

5. Redefining sovereignty
Scrapping the Lisbon Treaty, renegotiation of/withdrawal from free trade agreements, ending the use of memoranda of understanding, introduction of referendums on constitutional changes, wide ranging anti-corruption measures.

6. Recovering the land
Environmental protection, reduction of reliance upon fossil fuels, promotion of public transport and renewable energy, agricultural reform, recognition of access to water as a basic human right.
Why in Spain and not the UK

The lightning rise of Podemos (and the tripling of the vote for the more established United Left party) in Spain contrasts markedly with the election results in England. The anti-neoliberal anti-establishment parties took a huge chunk of the vote in Spain, but in the UK the protest party of choice is UKIP, which is even more fixated with the bankrupt neoliberal free-market ideology than the Lib-Lab-Con Westminster establishment they pretend to offer an alternative to.

The fact that UKIP have managed to soak up the protest vote despite being a Tory donor bankrolled "Thatcherism on steroids" party full of failed Tory politicians (Neil Hamilton, Roger Helmer, Bill Etheridge, Janice Atkinson ...) means that there was very little space for the genuine alternative parties.

The breakdown of the vote in England shows that the English electorate returned 57 MEPs from economically Thatcherite political parties (22 UKIP, 17 Tory, 17 Labour, 1 Lib-Dem) and just 3 from all of the alternative parties combined (3 Green).

The Green party have established themselves as the biggest alternative party, but their share of the vote actually fell from 8.1% in 2009 to 6.9% in 2014. They managed to return one additional MEP thanks only to the spectacular collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats.

The Green Party may try to convince themselves that they did well because they won an extra seat, but if we compare their performance with the progressive left in Spain we can see how much of a disappointment a 6.9% share of the vote should actually be.

The established United Left party picked up 10% of the votes in Spain and 6 MEPs, and Podemos picked up 8% and 5 MEPs despite having only been founded ten weeks before the ballot. These two parties (not the only left wing parties to win seats in Spain) picked up 18% of the vote and 11 of the 54 Spanish MEPs between them.

Of the 73 MEPs representing the UK, only 3 could be described as representatives of overtly left-wing parties (the 3 Green MEPs), if we allow the definition to be stretched a bit to include social democratic nationalist parties (Paid Cymru, the Scottish National Party, Sinn Féin) that still only takes the total to 7 out of 73. 

It is quite difficult to explain the huge difference in performance between the progressive left in Spain and England, but one possible explanation is that swathes of the British electorate have allowed themselves to be convinced by the right-wing press that the EU is some kind of communist plot (the old EUSSR chestnut) when it is in fact a project built on a foundation of neoliberal economics.

Perhaps the Spanish public aren't politically naive enough to allow themselves to believe that a communist organisation would have an an independent central bank (ECB) filled with neoclassically trained economists, led by a former Goldman Sachs employee (Mario Draghi) which goes around forcing privatisation all over the place?

Where is the progressive left in the UK?

The Green party has a strong manifesto with a lot of progressive economic ideas (there is actually an awful lot of crossover between the Green manifesto and the Podemos manifesto), however they failed to unite the left-wing vote and actually saw their share of the vote fall by over 12% since the last European election in 2009.

It's not like there are no left wing groups and no progressive organisations in the UK. There are plenty of organisations promoting left-wing politics and progressive economic policies including The Green Party, UK Uncut, the No2EU coalition, the People's Assembly, TUSC, the Socialist party, Respect, Occupy, Left Unity, the National Health Action party, the Tax Justice Network, Positive Money, the New Economics Foundation and many more, however they are splintered into sub groups, meaning the supporters of all of these groups have ended up with only three MEPs between the lot of them, all of them from the Green Party.

The progressive left is badly underachieving in the UK because it is failing to speak with a unified voice, which is absolutely vital given the fact that the mainstream media is overwhelmingly dominated by supporters of the Thatcherite economic ideology (even the supposedly left wing Guardian refuses to take an editorial line against neoliberalism).

If the progressive left in the UK want to achieve anything significant, they can't allow their message to be diluted, and they definitely can't rely on the mainstream news to be impartial when they inform people of their agenda. They've got to use alternative media (independent blogs & social media) and they've got to get out on the streets and actively explain what is going wrong, and what they plan to do about it.

In my view the only way the progressive left is going to achieve anything in UK politics is if they put their differences aside and unite behind some basic principles upon which they all more or less agree. Whatever this agreement is, it's got to be concise, it's got to be binding and it's got to be agreed as soon as possible.

Another thing the progressive left needs to do is find themselves a young and infectiously enthusiastic leader in the mould of Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, Alexis Tsipras of Syriza in Greece or Camila Vallejo, the student activist turned politician in Chile. Finding a young leader would be great, but it isn't a definite prerequisite, because you only have to look at the phenomenal success of Beppe Grillo's 5 Star movement in Italy to see that you don't necessarily have to be young to become an anti-establishment figurehead.

The UK progressive left took an absolute hammering in the European elections, but there isn't time for moping around feeling sorry for themselves, they've got to look at the success of the progressive left elsewhere and attempt to emulate it.

Of all of the successful progressive left parties, Podemos is by far the most inspirational story because they've shown that it is possible for a progressive left-wing party to take politics by storm. If they can go from nothing to the fourth most popular political party in Spain in the space of ten weeks, then anything is possible.

The rise of Podemos is a demonstration that the progressive left can achieve great things in the face of brutal establishment hostility. What it takes is solidarity and strong leadership.

The course of action for the progressive left in the UK should be absolutely clear. They need to unify, and they need to find themselves a strong leader. The only questions remaining should be 'how quickly can it be done?' and 'who can we unify behind?'.
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* The youth unemployment rate in Spain was 53.9% in March 2014, and the general rate of unemployment in Spain was 26% in the first quarter of 2014.

**Bankia was run by a guy called Rodrigo Rato, a former PP finance minister and managing director of the IMF.

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