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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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.