Adria Porta Caballe asks how a change in language and approach took the fledgling Spanish party Podemos to be a surprise of the European elections
In the Spanish left we had been saying for a long time that Podemos was going to be the surprise of the European elections. And, finally, on Sunday 25 May it became true. In only five months, Podemos managed to achieve 1,245,948 votes, 5 seats in the parliament and immense popular support. This is the story of how Podemos came to be, and a reflection on what the left in Britain can learn from such a successful experience.
The history of the UK during the crisis is not as different as that of Spain as you might at first think. First, in both countries you could see an outburst of popular outrage. While in 2010 the UK was immersed in the student protests and the Occupy movement, in Spain we saw the 15 May 2011 movement representing the birth of the Indignados movement. But noone expected these movements to last forever and, as soon as they started decaying it became necessary to transform this popular outrage into attempts to seize political power. This change goes hand in hand today with Podemos in Spain and, I would argue, with its equivalent in the UK: Left Unity.
Arguably, one can see these two stages (from outrage to political power) transnationally across Europe, with the main example being Greece. The trap to avoid here is to believe that the UK represents an exception to this rule because of its own idiosyncrasy. This excuse represents in fact one of the most effective fantasies that sustains the status quo in every country. The belief that there are reasons which mean that the left might be more powerful elsewhere functions as an excuse to not build similar political projects at home.
For instance, in Spain, before the birth of Podemos the left admired Greece’s capacity to turn popular discontent into an actual political challenge, while at the same time lamented that such a change of mindset would never happen there because the traditional euro-communist party Izquierda Unida was historically too strong. Podemos’ main lesson was to show that this is no excuse and that we can actually change this political reality. Similarly, the British left can look at Podemos with great admiration while arguing at the same time that such a project would never work in the UK due to several reasons – Labour is too strong, no tradition of left-reformism, the first-past-the-post system, etc.
The question remains whether the British left will make the necessary step and start seeing these excuses as nationally contingent conditions which can be changed under new political paradigms. Left Unity for instance has the potential of becoming this hegemonic force capable of transforming popular outrage into political power. But if that’s the case, it has still a lot to learn first from successful experiences like Podemos. What follows is a summary of the three main lessons learnt in Spain which could help the British left become the next “surprise” in Europe.
The unity of the Left follows popular unity, not the other way around
In the conference “Ideas to change the world” hosted by the Spanish anti-capitalist organization En Lucha last year, Pablo Iglesias was invited to speak amongst other prominent left-wing activists about the unity of the left. Even then, when Podemos did not appear in even our most optimistic dreams, he stated very clearly what was going to define the political basis of the upcoming party: the unity of the left cannot be the sum of all the small sects of the far-left. No, this can only come as a result. But fundamentally, “in order to win, we need to become the people” as Pablo Iglesias stated in a recent interview for La Hiedra.
Podemos has achieved this with a different method that rejects the traditional conception of party militancy and an unconditional commitment to popular self-organisation. In particular, the last 5 months offer three examples of Podemos’ participatory nature. First, when Pablo Iglesias made the first step, he also made clear from the very beginning that he would not go further unless he was backed by at least 50,000 people. He easily achieved that number in a day, establishing a precedent of direct democracy from start.
The second and most important example of how Podemos achieved popular empowerment was the creation of so-called “Circles”, local spaces of debate and action where everybody can attend no matter his or her political affiliations. Today there are around 400 Circles spread over the Spanish State and anywhere else where its citizens have had to exile since the crisis started for economic reasons (London, Berlin, Brussels, etc). The motto “all power to the circles” represents a dose of democracy to the regime and an unprecedented tool of popular empowerment.
Finally it is also worth mentioning that Podemos is the only party in the country which used open primary elections to choose its candidates. A quick glance to the more than 50 candidates who run in the open primaries is enough evidence of what distinguishes Podemos from the rest: workers, unemployed, precarious, students, teachers… but no professional politician. No wonder that with this different method, Podemos could not reach an agreement with the traditional euro-communist party Izquierda Unida to run together in the elections. Apparently the latter was only worried about exchanging some seats in a common candidature, while Podemos was obviously demanding a much more fundamental change in the way the left approaches internal democracy.
Podemos’ different method is intended to create a sense of popular unity. Pablo Iglesias is always mentioning the fact that the establishment is not afraid of him; it is not even afraid of the Circles. What the establishment really fears is a combative people. In this sense, we do need leaders like Pablo Iglesias to the extent that they serve as catalysts of hegemonic processes which bring the people together and, ultimately, the left. But within these informal leaderships there is also the result and crystallisation of 3 years of mass mobilisation with the Indignados movement, Mareas against austerity measures and the Affected by the Mortgage Platform (PAH).
The greatest danger facing Left Unity would be for it to become just a sum of all the small sects in the far-left, without achieving first a sense of popular unity. The British left can learn from Podemos the importance of creating spaces of popular empowerment and using open primaries as a tool for achieving participatory democracy.
The fundamental problem of the Left is a communication problem
Pablo Iglesias stands out amongst many other socialist activists in Spain for the primary role he has attributed to political communication. He was the first to set up a very modest TV program to discuss issues from a left wing perspective: la Tuerka and then Fort Apache. In these debates Pablo Iglesias and his colleagues challenged the idea that “the revolution will not be televised” by covering topics which would be otherwise dismissed or biased by the mass media. Most importantly la Tuerka and Fort Apache showed a new way to communicate radical politics; both approachable and entertaining.
Pablo Iglesias is extremely popular today in Spain – because he appears on TV. He has rendered the left visible in one of the most virgin fields for us, despite being heavily criticized by sectarians for accepting the invitation by mainstream TV channels which usually depict our protests in the most biased way. Pablo Iglesias is aware that the only reason why he is invited there is because the antagonism with right wing journalists and politicians pushes up audience share. However, if we seriously aim at persuading the unconvinced, we cannot just simply neglect spaces with such a huge ideological influence like television. Despite all its contradictions, we have to occupy these spaces as much as possible.
In fact, the problem the left has with the media is not different from the problem it has with elections. This is the rationale behind Pablo Iglesias saying “we have to be everywhere” (in workplaces, the media, the institutions of power). Podemos’ great success is to not dismiss politically any social space. Take the traditional motto of the left “the streets are ours” for instance. Pablo Iglesias is always pointing out the fact that, when one walks around town, you do not have the impression that “the streets are ours”. As a matter of fact there are increasingly more banks, cameras, police… In brief, the streets are theirs as any other place under capitalism and it is only when we demonstrate there that we start reclaiming this social space. The necessary conclusion is that we have to be everywhere.
But Podemos’ communication success has not only to do with visibility, but more fundamentally with discourse. Pablo Iglesias has also been heavily criticised by sectarians for not using the TV platform to recite the orthodox dogma of the left. He has never explained the core principles of Marxism; in fact, he does not even use terms like “capitalism” or “socialism”. The reason being that he understood from the very beginning that the fundamental problem of the left today is a communication problem: “if you are trying to communicate and you are not being understood, you are not more revolutionary, you are an idiot”.
When you listens to Pablo Iglesias on TV, you have the impression that what he is saying is actually common sense. Despite being a teacher in political science, he never flaunts those academic credentials. He communicates in plain language the popular outrage against an establishment that permits 500 daily evictions, 6 million unemployed and rampant corruption. Podemos has created a discourse of its own, which has become very characteristic and identifiable. With two main anchoring points, the “political caste” and “the people”, Pablo Iglesias has got rid of all academic language which prevent us every day from convincing the majority of society.
Every new political formation which seriously hopes to be successful must create a new language. If that is the task ahead of Left Unity for instance, it has to learn from Podemos how to construct a political discourse which appears to be both approachable and exciting for the majority of people.
“When was the last time you voted hopefully?”
The main slogan of Podemos during the European elections represented perfectly the change in mindset that the Indignados provoked. Daniel Ripa remembered in the campaign closing event that the usual argument made by critics of the 15M movement was to ask “if you are so many, why don’t you run in the elections?”. While the answer in 2011 had to go through a long and defeatist explanation of the undemocratic nature of the system, the response during the campaign closing event was a firm and hopeful “here we are now!”.
No wonder that the very name of the party is Podemos [We can]. Ultra-leftists in Spain usually make fun of this pointing out the obvious reference to Obama’s slogan, implying that Pablo Iglesias is more of the same. But this criticism is missing the point that Podemos is trying to make: hope is no longer the monopoly of the establishment, we can dispute it again now that consensus between rulers and ruled is broken. In brief, we have to start believing again that we can actually win.
In this respect the British left has a lot to learn from Podemos. In the UK there’s a plethora of small left wing political parties one can join. And the first-past-the-post system is no excuse for the left’s poor performance during elections, especially after seeing UKIP’s recent electoral results. People simply do not vote for far left alternatives to the Labour Party because these organisations themselves do not believe they can actually win. The most sensible thing to say in front of this dilemma is to argue with Ken Loach that “we need to do for the l+eft what UKIP has done for the far-right”.
Hope is the fundamental catalyst of hegemonic movements. As a matter of fact, Pablo Iglesias is always saying that, in order to win, we need to be able to “inspire”. This is the fundamental difference that distinguishes Podemos from the traditional, euro-communist party Izquierda Unida. Unlike the latter, Podemos does not aim at sustaining a respectable 10% and a few seats at the Parliament, it does not fall into the trap of so-called “governance”, but rather seeks to overflow the system with radical democracy. Podemos does not conform and re-claims the possibility of winning in an “all or nothing game”. No wonder that Pablo Iglesias, despite representing the “surprise” of the day, was the only political leader to not deliver a triumphalist speech after the electoral results. Many people -even Podemos supporters- criticized him for not even taking that moment as a partial victory.
“But I must say that for now we have not achieved our objective of overcoming them. Tomorrow there will still be six million unemployed, and they will go on evicting families in our country. Tomorrow they will go on privatising hospitals. There will still be people working under appalling conditions. There will still be young people forced to go into exile. There will still be a quarter of citizens living in poverty. There will still be migrant workers who are treated like animals. There will still be unpunished bankers at large. There will still be corrupt bankers climbing into official cars. Tomorrow, Merkel and the financial powers will go on making decisions against us and against ordinary people. We have made a lot of progress, and we have surprised the caste. But the task we are confronted with from tomorrow on is enormous. That is why I want to ask everyone committed to the defence of democracy to be on high guard. Podemos was not born to play a token role. We were born to go out and get them all, and we are going to go out and get them”.
This is the “enormous task” ahead of Podemos, and only future events will decide if it is actually capable of keeping up with it. What appears to be undeniable now is the effectiveness of a new party formed on the basis of popular unity and able to communicate and give hope to the millions of people who suffer the consequences of the crisis. To date, Left Unity seems the most appropriate candidate for this role. But the question remains whether the British left will draw the necessary conclusions from Podemos experience: will it put popular unity before the unity of the Left? Will it communicate a message in a way that can be understood by the majority of people? And, most importantly, will it make us hope again? Miguel Urbán said in the presentation of Podemos UK that they are going to Europe looking for friends. Podemos is already offering a helping hand, now is the turn of the British left.