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31 July 2000

Blair’s amigos lead a comeback

A young lawyer is helping the Spanish Socialists reinvent themselves. Sounds familiar?

By David Mathieson

They’re not calling it “new socialist” in Madrid, but the changes being made within the Spanish Socialist Party, the PSOE, are as great as anything Labour has done. With the election of a new leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a 39-year-old lawyer and MP from the north of Spain, and a completely new federal executive committee (a more powerful equivalent of Labour’s NEC), there is hardly anyone left from the party leadership of three months ago. It is the first step on a road to recovery from the crushing election defeat in March this year, when the Socialists were reduced to a rump in the Spanish parliament. Further far-reaching reforms can be expected in what Zapatero is describing as a “cambio tranquilo” – a quiet change.

The election of Zapatero represents the most important change in Spanish socialism for nearly 30 years. The new generation has finally broken the grip of Felipe Gonzalez and his generation, which in recent years has been paralysing the party. Gonzalez was himself elected as the PSOE leader, against the odds and against a more established man, when he was just 32. He went on to transform not only the party but, after the fall of General Franco, Spain itself. From being the young leader of a clandestine Socialist Party in the fascist years, Gonzalez was president of his country for 14 years; and it will be hard for Zapatero to emulate his style. Shortly after Zapatero’s election, I asked a journalist in Madrid if Zapatero had charisma. “No,” she said. “There is one person and only one person in this whole damned country who has charisma – and that is Felipe Gonzalez. But Zapatero does have a certain charm.”

Until a month ago, Zapatero was a virtually unknown outsider within the party. By the start of the congress that elected him, however, his able young campaign team had built up real momentum. In a breathtakingly close finish, he won by just nine votes (less than 1 per cent) against his main rival, Jose Bono, the established “baron” of the party.

The Felipe factor has been the PSOE’s major problem in recent years. Because Gonzalez and his generation were so young when they came to power, and because they were so effective in bringing Spain from post-dictatorship in the 1970s into the modern world, they have found it difficult to retire. Voters have increasingly viewed the party as one with an exceptionally honourable past, but a diminishing relevance for modern Spain.

Until now. Delegates at this congress have been talking excitedly of it being of equal historical importance to that which elected the boy Gonzalez in 1974: a new team at the top, a new style of politics to be pursued with renewed energy. Javier Solana, one of the delegates, said that while the Socialists were proud of their past, the election of Zapatero and his team meant that a new epoch had begun for the PSOE – “I think that you and your British friends did something similar with the Labour Party, no?”

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Inevitably, comparisons are being made between Zapatero and Tony Blair. Zapatero, too, is a young lawyer turned MP. The team around him are generally young professionals in their late thirties or early forties. Moreover, important members of the Zapatero team are not only well informed about the Blair government, but enthusiastic about what it is doing. In his unscripted hustings speech to the congress (which undoubtedly won him the day), Zapatero was keen to emphasise points that will be familiar to members of the British Labour Party. These include the need to connect a modernised party with the expectations of contemporary society; to ensure that the benefits of globalisation are distributed to all; and to create a strong, flexible economy to implement social justice. Finally, as Blair did with Labour, Zapatero warned his party that, if it really wanted to change society, it would first have to change itself. He told delegates: “If the PSOE does not change itself, it can never aspire to represent with dynamism, dignity, optimism and energy the Spaniards of today and the future.”

Zapatero and his team are reluctant to talk policy specifics at the moment; what Zapatero brings now is a new style. In recent years, the PSOE came to be perceived as a party dominated by powerful regional bosses who had been around for decades and who were unable to confront the corruption scandals that dogged the final years of the last PSOE government.

This has changed with the election of Zapatero. As the first-ever PSOE leader to be elected by a secret ballot of congress delegates, and with the ratification of a new executive by more than 90 per cent of votes cast, he has the moral authority to drive through change in the party. His hustings speech contained many references to “change”, “renovation”, “internal reconstruction” and “new style”. It was not clear how these would translate into concrete reforms – but these are early days.

The PSOE has at last begun to close the credibility gap with the electorate. The new team will need to work hard to close up divisions in the party while establishing a set of policies and an identity that are both radical and relevant to modern Spain.

In the 1980s, Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher and Christian Democracy dominated the European agenda. Left-wing parties in Europe, not least in Britain, looked at Gonzalez and the PSOE with a mixture of envy and pride. Social democracy is now the dominant force in Europe. France, Germany, Italy and Britain all have centre-left governments, as do most of the smaller states, with the notable exception of Austria.

The left in Spain has taken the bold step of electing a young, little-known leader. Before his election, a popular debate in Spain was whether the PSOE would be out of power for another four years, eight years or for ever. The PSOE is now back on the political map. A young man with a certain charm is embarking on some quiet changes that may yet oust the right in four years’ time.

The writer is a member of both new Labour and the PSOE