In the Critics this week

Norman Lamont on Iran, Michael Rosen on children and literature, Leo Robson on John Lanchester and J

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, the lead book review is by former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont. Reviewing Trita Parsi's A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, Lamont argues that western policy on Iran has failed. "[It] has become institutionalised," he writes. "As one US state department official put it: 'Thirty years of doing something in a certain way is pretty powerful.'" Yet the case for doing things differently, Lamont thinks, is unarguable. "Washington's containment policy is accompanied by other measures such as cyber warfare, sabotage and, allegedly, the murder of Iranian scientists. Iran seems to be retaliating by targeting Israeli diplomats, The spiral continues."

In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to American writer Nathan Englander about his new collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Englander says he "appreciate[s] and love[s]" the short story form. "There was so much pressure when I was writing [my] novel. I've also freed myself from this idea of definition ... I tell stories, that's it."

Also in Books, the NS's lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson breaks with the burgeoning critical consensus on John Lanchester's novel Capital. "Lanchester's new novel," he writes, "has the daunting dimensions, totalising ambition and democratic cast list of a 19th-century novel in modern-day dress." However, "as a portrait of metropolitan decadence, [Capital] is all surfaces and stereotypes, all symptoms."

Also under review: David Herman reviews Film: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Wood; Jane Shilling reviews the watercooler book du jour, Rachel Cusk's memoir Aftermath ("Readers who admire the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny will find precision, beauty and a complicated truth in Cusk's narrative. The censorious will enjoy it, too, for different reasons"); Maurice Walsh reviews Douglas Murray's Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry; and Robert Hanks reviews New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin.

Our Critic at large this week is the children's author and poet Michael Rosen. Rosen complains that children's writers are rarely asked for their opinion on how to get children reading - more's the pity. "The makers of children's books are people who spend their lives trying to figure out ways to make [their] wisdom interesting ... What infuriates me .... is that the past 30 years have seen successive governments waging war on the democratic sharing of this wisdom."

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Michael directed by Markus Schleinzer; Will Self's "Real Meals"; Kate Mossman on Madonna; Antonia Quirke on Radio 4's Living World; Rachel Cooke on Jeremy Paxman's series Empire; Andrew Billen on In Basildon at the Royal Court; Hunter Davies's "The Fan"; and "2004", a poem by Owen Sheers."

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain