Spanish regional nationalism is a curse and a blessing for Rajoy

Regional parties mitigate the threat of a single populist party winning national support.

Once Catalonia’s regional election completes on 25 November, Spain’s electoral calendar is scheduled to be blissfully clear for at least 12 months. But anyone hoping this will keep a lid on political instability in the country will likely be disappointed. Spanish politics is primed for a difficult 2013.

The reasons for this are no secret: a worsening economy, painfully high unemployment, and an austerity programme which is likely to exacerbate these issues further. What is less clear is how the inevitable fall in the government’s popularity will affect Spanish politics at both the national level and at that of its restive, independence-minded regions.

Polls suggest that Artur Mas, leader of the Convergence and Union party, is likely to win Catalonia’s regional election in November. He has made the promise of a vote on Catalan independence from Spain a central plank of his campaign. Any referendum would be illegal without the sanctioning of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government, which has vehemently rejected such a possibility. But whilst the law may be on the government’s side, popular support is with Mr Mas (polls show over 70 per cent of Catalans want a referendum). The constitutional standoff that looks set to take place will at best be an unwelcome distraction for an already harried government; at worst it will thrust Mr Rajoy into a destabilising power struggle, greatly inflaming regional nationalism and sapping the confidence of Spain’s creditors. If the centralisation of powers which has been necessitated by the drive for deficit reduction (i.e. newly-legislated powers to take over the budgets of overspending regions) is perceived to be threatened, markets may well lose faith in the central government’s ability to rein in the activities of its recalcitrant autonomous regions.

But whilst the risks are real, regional nationalism is also likely to serve a more benign purpose. Its capacity to absorb anti-government sentiment should work to reduce the risk of national populist parties gaining support, as they have to disruptive effect in other peripheral countires. If Spain’s national parties lose legitimacy then regional parties will fill the gap, dissipating opposition to the government and mitigating the threat of a single populist party gaining enough support country-wide to challenge the mainstream establishment.

This is important as, currently, Spain’s political profile is following the same inglorious route that Greece laid out in 2010/11. The absolute majority the People’s Party (PP) holds in parliament is comparable to that which George Papandreou’s PASOK enjoyed following its overwhelming victory in the 2009 election. The rapid collapse PASOK suffered thereafter (as its unpopular budget measures fomented increasing opposition and dissent) is being mirrored to an even more precipitous degree by Rajoy’s PP. PP support has slumped from 46% in March to 30 per cent in October and seems likely to fall further as the recession persists. The less likely, but far more concerning risk in Spain is of a disintegration in the government’s majority brought about by the deepening unpopularity of the People’s Party.

Spanish voting intentions (2008-present)

Source: ASR Ltd. / CIS / Obradoirp / NC Report / MetroscopiaG

The difference between a ruling party which is ahead in the polls and one which is terribly unpopular is difficult to underestimate. The control party leaders have over their members is almost entirely predicated on their ability to advance, hinder or, occasionally, destroy political careers. With a degrading party brand and the increasing personal unpopularity of the leader, party discipline is an almost inevitable casualty. That process is ongoing for Rajoy’s People’s Party, albeit at an early stage. The absolute parliamentary majority it enjoys, at just ten seats, must be considered vulnerable, just as PASOK’s proved to be in Greece in 2011.

Greek voting intentions (2006-present)

Source: ASR Ltd. / CIS / Obradoirp / NC Report / MetroscopiaG

The expulsions and splinter party formations that eroded PASOK’s majority were the result of a conveyor belt of austerity packages that became ever more austere as target after target was missed. Spain is in danger of being locked into a similar cycle. Its 2013 deficit targets are based on growth figures considered over-optimistic by everyone except the Spanish government. The need for further austerity seems certain to grow, and the potential for a disruptive political shock in Spain will grow with it.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

Supporters of independence for Catalonia demonstrate in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.