The Olympic spirit?

Cyclists banned from Newham for the duration of the Games.

 

For your average left-winger (like me), grandiose patriotic events are usually characterised by post-imperial malaise, myth-peddling and latent racism – until Friday night. Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony revealed a country forged in the actions of ordinary people; actions which to defined a new British spirit of compassion, diversity, irreverence, and audacity. As Anthony Painter so beautifully put it, "The orthodox view of the people as merely extras in a story of regal supremacy and a march to global domination now seems as peculiar as a gurn on the face of Mr Bean." In three hours, Boyle seemed to reclaim history for we, the people, from the royals and politicians who would otherwise own it.
 
But as I watched the Olympic flag being paraded around the stadium, something was happening outside. The police were arresting over 100 members of the cycling group, Critical Mass; a group which has been cycling on London’s streets for the last 18 years with no aim but to celebrate the joy of bikes. In the words of one cyclist who was arrested, "I can honestly say I had absolutely zero intention of disrupting the Olympics. I don’t think anyone did. It was about enjoying cycling – not hating the Olympics."
 
In 2008, the House of Lords ruled that Critical Mass was acting completely lawfully and that the Metropolitan Police were not allowed to obstruct the bike rides. And yet, at around midnight on Friday the police ushered cyclists into a cul-de-sac in East London, kettled them, and began forcing some off their bikes. Over 100 cyclists were then arrested under Section 12 of the Public Order Act. They were bundled on coaches, where they remained for over 7 hours without access to food, water or toilets. One of the arrestees was a 13-year-old boy.
 
Arrestees were later released with stringent bail conditions, including a ban from cycling in an entire London borough, Newham. Very little is written about how bail conditions are often used to essentially supress protest, but as Alastair, a cyclist present at the ride, summarised, "This is about taking a big chunk of potential activists out of the picture for the duration of the Olympics and using police bail to do it."
 
If the cyclists were simply doing what they have always done on Friday night, then so were the police. As the cyclists were being detained, the Olympics opening ceremony was lauding Suffragettes and trade unionists that were also oppressed and demonised for threatening the pageantry and power of the day. It was ever thus: "generations of people must fight the same battles over and over again," as Tony Benn once said – even if those people are simply cyclists deciding that a militarised sporting event will not change them.
 
Some of those who took part in the Critical Mass bike ride point out the juxtaposition of the ceremony’s themes with the oppression of civil liberties going on outside. But I don’t see the two as being in conflict. When Danny Boyle chose Shakespeare’s words "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises," he was recognising Britain as a troubled and frenetic country. He was acknowledging that Britain has often been a country of struggle, and of noise. Boyle reminded us that Britain’s greatest moments have been those where people stand up to the powerful. By refusing to abandon their tradition at the behest of the authorities, Critical Mass, in its own small way, was continuing the legacy of those the ceremony was celebrating.
 
The athletes will return home in a few weeks, and we must think about the sort of country that will be left behind. The sanctity of the Olympics has provided the police with powers that are likely to remain long after the corporate bunting has been taken down. I choose not to see Danny Boyle’s ceremony as bread and circuses; I choose to see it as a call to arms. We must defend our freedom of expression, as those who came before us did. We must defend it because it is the only weapon we have to ensure that we, the people, can write our own history.
Police corral cyclists from Critical Mass on 27 July (Photograph: Getty Images)
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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