Simon Doubleday, Professor and Chair at Hofstra University, writes on what we can learn from Spain’s Podemos movement in Brexit Britain today.
The meltdown of the British political system in the wake of the June referendum offers an opportunity, unprecedented in our lifetimes, for political creativity. In seizing this opportunity, those calling for a progressive alliance encompassing a Corbyn-led Labour Party, the Green Party, the Lib-Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and many people who voted “Leave”—might learn a good deal from the experience of Podemos, the party forged in the aftermath of the 15-M social movement in Spain.
“Imagine a solid brick wall, passing before your eyes,” Pablo Iglesias—ponytailed secretary general of Podemos—suggests, in the new documentary Política: Manual de Instrucciones, which follows his party’s rise to prominence in two-year period leading up to the Spanish national elections of December 2015. The view is bleak: there is no hope of progress, no hope of passing through the wall. Suddenly, Iglesias continues, a window appears. This is your moment. It is unrepeatable.
The widespread thirst for change revealed in the pro-Corbyn “Momentum” campaign, in recent calls for a progressive alliance, and in the “Leave” vote suggest that this may be Britain’s moment: a chance to engage in radical reinvention, harnessing grassroots energy. Never has this been more necessary. As George Monbiot points out, the Labour Party has so far failed to mount the “devastating attacks on established power” needed to ensure its survival. Nor is it likely to do so for as long as Corbyn and his supporters remain trapped in an unhappy marriage with the party’s neoliberal centre.
In Spain, too, the established Socialist Party (PSOE) has faded, unable to challenge the dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (PP) despite high unemployment rates and evidence of rampant criminal corruption. After months of political impasse, in which no party was able to form a government, the PSOE lost seats in a second round of elections on June 26. Podemos, for its part, has retained the 71 seats that it gained in the December elections. It has consolidated its position as a major political force in Spain in just two years’ time. Having seen off the challenge of a glossy new center-right party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), it has definitively broken the old two-party system and its entrenched pattern of turnismo (taking turns in power).
Yet Podemos’ much anticipated sorpasso (overtaking) of the Socialists did not materialize. Long-simmering debates about whether social change can be achieved on the streets, or (as Iglesias now believes) through institutions, have now resurfaced. Iglesias has already begun to talk of a new stage in the party’s trajectory: instead of ‘storming heaven’, he suggested earlier this week, it will now enter a quieter phase of consolidation. Iñigo Errejón, the party’s baby-faced political campaign manager, has suggested that there now needs to be a particular attention not to impassioned voters who burst into tears of joy at Podemos rallies, but to those who are more privately sympathetic.
Progressive British voters might learn from both the trajectory of Podemos. One of its most productive strategic moves was in fact to have moved beyond the straightjacket of “left” and “right”: terms with parliamentary origins that often artificially divide people with similar social and economic interests. By the same token, however, the tactical alliance between Podemos and Izquierda Unida (with its communist core), which Podemos entered against Errejón’s advice in the June electoral campaign, may well have backfired, by taking the center of gravity too far to the traditional left. It is possible that this particular alliance will again be rejected—as it was in the lead-up to the December elections—as an electoral liability in favor of a fresher, ‘transversal’ politics, cutting more imaginatively across party lines.
Hopes for a radical political change in Britain must be similarly imaginative. As Jeremy Corbyn has underscored, there can be no more “politics as usual”. Rather than seeking the safe haven of left-wing virtue, Corbynites must engage in substantive dialogue with angry, disenfranchised “Leave” voters of “left-behind” Britain. This does not mean reverting to a Blairite ‘third way’, but generating new forms of radicalism, responding to class injustice but moving beyond old strategies, images, and constituencies. Transcending an outmoded division between left and right, this new movement should offer a broad umbrella for people who want to remain in Europe only if it offers real social and economic justice; who will be engaged only if their voices will be heard and respected; and who above all crave a new kind of politics.
Young people should of course be one pillar of this movement: voters under 25 who are disillusioned by establishment politics. “Down with this sort of thing”, say their placards. They want a new sort of thing: a party that is affective as well as effective, harnessing their emotional commitment to change. In Spain, too, the face of Podemos has been young, cool, forward-looking. The party’s famous “IKEA” programme was replete with images of their leaders relaxing at home, with Mac laptops and children’s toys in clear view. In a political culture where image is everything, Podemos has mastered the art of the visual.
But youth has its limits as a political tool; Errejón has spoken recently of a need to move beyond political sex appeal. The Podemos leadership is conscious of the need to convince an older generation. Manuela Carmena, a battle-hardened anti-Francoist judge in her early seventies, was elected mayor of Madrid on the “Ahora Madrid” platform—supported by Podemos—in May 2015. Her age, pedigree, and personal charm allowed the party to defuse accusations of naiveté, and (worse) claims that the young Turks of Podemos were paid instruments of the Venezuelan regime. There has been a sustained attempt, in campaign speeches and in advertising, to harness the votes of grandparents. In the United Kingdom, it will be equally essential for metropolitan progressives to avoid vilifying older people for ‘betraying’ the young. And—as John Harris, Caroline Lucas, and others have emphasized, there can be absolutely no room for condescension towards working-class ‘Leavers’ who were shocked when—for the first time in their lives—their vote actually made a difference.
Politics is the art of creating what does not yet exist, says Errejón. There are reasons to be hopeful. A broad-based progressive alliance, linking the aspirations of the young with the concerns of the older generation, could deal a decisive blow to Tory and New Labour hegemony. The high referendum turnout suggests the potential for a new kind of politics to destroy Britain’s own bipartisan turnismo. Now is the moment for bold and imaginative thinking, informed by the Podemos experience. If we do not take this chance, we will once again be up against that solid brick wall.
Simon Doubleday is Professor and Chair of History at Hofstra University, in New York, and specializes in the history of Spain. His books include “The Wise King” (Basic Books, 2016).