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Si, we can! How the left-wing Podemos party is rattling the Spanish establishment

As the Spanish election approaches, a surge in support for the party has set the clock ticking.

The party's leader, Pablo Iglesias. Photo: Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

“Tick-tock, tick-tock”, chanted the huge crowd in the centre of Madrid last Saturday as they marched in support the new Podemos (“we can”) party. Counting out what they – and many others around Europe – expect to be the last days of the existing Spanish political order, Podemos supporters take heart from recent polls and the Syriza victory in Greece.  The party came from nowhere to win over a million votes and take 5 seats in the European parliamentary elections last May. According to some polls almost 30 per cent of Spaniards could vote Podemos at the next general election – 5 points clear of their nearest rivals, the leftist PSOE. Given that PSOE, founded in 1879, is one of Europe's oldest social democratic parties while Podemos has only just celebrated its first birthday, this is a remarkable result.

Like Syriza in Greece, Podemos is often pigeon holed as “anti austerity”, “radical left” and “Marxist”. Those labels may work for some of its policies but does not begin to describe the movement’s broad social base. The Podemos upsurge is far from a revolt of the crisis-hit poor and huddled masses. In fact, much of the party’s support comes from the well-healed, tech-savvy and most educated. Data from the official sociological research institute (CIS) and leading polling agencies all tell the same story: this is largely a movement of the middle class and the young. The latest CIS data reveals that support for the party amongst the upper middle classes, for example, nearly doubled last year and that 25 per cent of them now say that they will vote Podemos at the next election. Astonishingly, this is almost 10 points above the traditional choice of the Spanish bourgeois, the governing centre right Popular Party (PP).  The professional middle classes and graduates are also turning to Podemos in greater numbers as are skilled manual workers – around one in five of both groups now identify themselves as Podemos supporters.  By contrast there are two groups where the party appears to be making little headway: the unskilled working class and those without any qualifications. Youth is another key constituency for Podemos. A quarter of 18-35 year olds look likely to vote Podemos as will around one in five of those in their 30s, 40s or early 50s. Amongst pensioners, however, support slumps to single figures. 

The irony of a left-wing party harnessing middle-class support is even more evident when compared with what is going on in Britain.  This year “outsider” parties will mount serious electoral challenges to the political establishment in both Britain (Ukip) and in Spain (Podemos). Yet the two are very different not only in their policies but in their core vote. While the right wing Ukip is drawing support from older, unskilled working class voters without formal qualifications the reverse is true for the left wing insurgents of Podemos in Spain who are tapping into a middle class vote.

Despite being tagged as ‘radical left’ Podemos is actually fighting hard for centre ground votes. Around 40 per cent of Spaniards define themselves as “moderate” and in the ideological centre of Spanish politics. Podemos is now the preferred choice for a third of this group – level pegging with the number who say they will support PSOE and twice the number of those who say they will support the PP. It has been a golden rule of post Franco democratic Spanish politics that elections are won by the party which commands most support in the centre. On the current data Podemos are well on their way to consolidating exactly the level of support they need amongst moderate Spaniards to win the next election.

The reasons for Podemos’ success goes way beyond an anti-austerity message. One of the party’s most successful attack lines is against what they call la casta (the caste or the class).  The phrase resonates with many Spaniards and describes the over cosy relationship between politicians, oligopolistic business interests and an inert bureaucracy which is protected by some of the weakest freedom of information laws in Europe. The British equivalent of la casta might be the “Westminster elite” but this translation does not really do the job. Anger at the entrenched elite in Madrid is also directed toward the leaders of Spain’s powerful, de-centralised regions which are frequently dominated by local political cliques.

Simmering discontent with the system has been evident for years. Ordinary Spaniards complained about an “extractive” government class while international reports on the Spanish economy from the OECD and others highlighted shortcomings which arise from the bureaucratic quagmire, low levels of investment and poor productivity.

All this came to head with the economic crisis. Unemployment has soared whilst the living standards for many of those in work – including, of course, the middle class – have been hit hard. But one issue above all others has fuelled support for Podemos: corruption. Spanish courts are now awash with cases of bankers, politicians and even members of the royal family accused of ripping off the public during the boom years. Corruption ranks alongside the economy as the issue which most concerns Spaniards and the old political parties are struggling to respond because it happened on their watch.

Whether Podemos can sustain their momentum depends on several factors some of which are beyond their control. If the new Syriza government in Greece fails it will contaminate the Podemos brand in Spain. The Spanish economy is picking up slowly and this may be enough for some voters to withdraw their gamble on Podemos. And there internal questions to be settled too – several key policies have not been thought through. It is also far from clear whether the party has the logistical muscle to mobilize a large number of first time voters and polls suggest many voters may simply abstain. Yet the Spanish establishment is rattled and rightly so.  The Spanish middle class is angry and the clock really is ticking.

David Mathieson is a former adviser to the late Robin Cook. He is on Twitter as @mathiesonmadrid

Photo:Getty
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.