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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

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.