Energetic, serious, thoughtful, diverse, popular, youthful in every sense of the word – it is difficult not to describe the new Podemos party without reaching for glib clichés and exalting the rise of what must be Europe’s most remarkable new left party.
But it really is remarkable. Just consider the facts. The party was founded on 16th January this year. Less than four months later it had won nearly 8 per cent of the vote in the European elections and returned 5 MEPs. If that wasn’t incredible enough – after all you might think such things do become vaguely possible in proportional electoral systems – its trajectory since has been all the more spectacular.
The party now claims 120,000 members – a figure, to put it in context, which makes Podemos six times larger than the Green Party of England and Wales and three times larger than the ‘insurgent’ UKIP. Recent opinion polls (for example here and here) of voting intentions for the upcoming Spanish general election next year have put it on as much as 21.5 per cent, virtually neck and neck with the Socialist Party.
I am an optimist by temperament. So presented with facts like these I am liable to sound positively evangelical. But there really does seem to be something special happening here: a hope for a new kind of mass, i.e. governmental, politics of the radical left. Taken together with the emergence of Syriza in Greece (polls show it is on course to win the next election) and the possible departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom – something evidently driven by a backlash against the neoliberal status quo on these islands – these are beacons of light for the future of Europe
With over a third of Londoners born overseas, it has become the norm in recent years for Europe’s new left parties to establish branches in the city seeking to reach out to the diaspora. Many young Spaniards have come to London to work and study in since the crisis hit and with Podemos enjoying such success on the domestic political scene it was only natural that it would quickly gain a considerable following in the capital.
Turn out for the London launch meeting did not disappoint. On September 13th some 250 people squeezed into the room at the London Welsh Centre, with many others watching a live stream of the event in the overspill room at University College London.
Podemos have all of the features of the contemporary new left at its most attractive, combining thoughtfulness with a disdain for dogma, and a sense of what they are trying to achieve that is at once pragmatic and visionary. The choice of opening speaker reflected this ethos. Cristina Flesher Fominaya, author of Social Movements and Globalization: How protests, occupations and uprisings are changing the world, addressed themes of technological change, information networks, and the avenues they present for political participation for new left organising. She offered a nuanced account, recognising the negative, as well as the positive, changes in behaviour and social interaction that the internet had brought with it. Her closing advice, ’Don’t feed the trolls’, no doubt resonated with audience and panel alike.
New left… here?
Next up was the film director Ken Loach – who last year took the initiative to set up Left Unity, Britain’s latest attempt to develop a new left party. I should probably declare an interest here. Having myself joined with Loach and others to launch Left Unity, it was only natural I would agree with much of what he had to say.
Loach kicked off by praising the name of Spain’s new party.
We Can has a long history – going back to the immigrant workers on the east coast of America, whose slogan was ‘Yes We Can’. We are told all the time that we don’t have power, we’re dispensable – your name says the opposite: yes we can, yes we do have power, yes we do have strength.
He went on to lay stress on the significance of the Podemos experience for organising here, discussing the austerity offensive and the role that social democratic parties across Europe had played in carrying it through for capital.
Loach finished by speaking directly to the role of Left Unity, which he described as a ‘left movement with things in common with Podemos’. He identified three problems of the old British left that a new movement had to break from: (a) democratic centralism, ‘which was very centralised but didn’t have much democracy’, (b) ‘charismatic leaders who then disappeared’ and (c) sectarianism.
‘We have been living with these problems for half a century’, he said, adding, ‘we need to develop a grassroots organisation, which carries the ideas that in the end will be key to unlocking the problems that we have’. There was also a note of urgency in Loach’s speech: ‘if we don’t get a progressive and socialist movement now, God knows when we’ll get the chance again.'
Tania González Peñas was one of the 5 Podemos MEPs elected earlier this year. She spoke next, and picked up immediately on similar themes to those Loach addressed.
‘When Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was, she replied that it was New Labour’, she said. She went on to talk about how neoliberalism had ‘taken over the left wing, jettisoning all ideas of citizenship, and imposing privatization, cuts and austerity’. ‘And this underlines what we are trying to achieve, to put together a genuine alternative’, she added.
Similar themes would be later picked up on in the audience discussion as a number of representatives of Europe’s new left parties – Syriza, Front de Gauche, etc – were asked to address the meeting, and each tended to echo this political diagnosis.
Owen Jones spoke next. As a Labour Party member, might have been expected to offer a contrary analysis. But he focused on more general anti-austerity themes. It was a passionate indictment of austerity, the Tories and UKIP, particularly notable for its welcome – and very well received – defence of migrants from xenophobic and racist attacks. ‘They turn people’s anger on their neighbours… It wasn’t Polish cleaners who plunged the country into economic disaster. It wasn’t Nigerian nurses either. It wasn’t Bulgarian fruit pickers. It was the financial elite at the top who plunged us into disaster’, he said to loud applause.
Jones has become an outstanding orator and there can be little doubt that he would be a fantastic spokesperson for a Podemos-like organisation here. He was asked from the floor to address his position on this and did so when summing up. The Labour left is divided between those who give strong and weak defences of their party membership; the former being an appeal to join and develop its left wing, the latter instead tending to shift the focus, stating the difficulties of building an alternative party and emphasising instead support for movements above all else. Jones is very much in the second camp. He listed the many factors that make it difficult to build a new left party in Britain – from the electoral system, to the unions and the strength of the Labour tradition – and argued that support for the People’s Assembly should be the main priority for now.
There was nothing new in these arguments but it was positive that Jones did at least refuse to rule out the development of a left alternative in the future, particularly if the working class experienced a Labour government carrying through austerity. ‘The Labour Party has no God given right to govern. It has no God given right to exist and monopolise support. If it comes to power and implements austerity, then we might be able to change things, the possibility might open up to develop an alternative.’
The second Podemos speaker, Íñigo Errejón, raised another important theme in the discussion: whether we should prioritise unity on the left in the building of a new left. As he put it,
People often ask us, are we going to unite the left? And we reply, ’no we’re not – that is not what we are trying to do’. We are uniting the people, that is our job, to organise the 90 per cent of the population, people facing précarité and unemployment, all these different social sectors, we are organising in our project, in Podemos… We do so by talking like the people, by speaking their language.
As Loach commented in his closing remarks, this was a ‘brave thing to say – because it’s the opposite of what people want to hear. But it’s the right thing to say. We know there are sections of the left that simply won’t ever unite. And there also those who say “we will join the parade but only if my flag is at the front”’. Jones made a similar point, referring to ‘sectarian groups who don’t realise they’re an obstacle to a healthy left’. And indeed those who want to build a genuinely new left rather than cobble together the failed old left can take heart from the Podemos surge: a party built by new alliances able to break free from the dogmatism of the competing left sects.
So where does this leave us?
As both Loach and Jones implied there are obvious lessons for activists here in Britain: to orientate to new layers rather than the various hierarchical sects. Left Unity has, on a very modest scale, at least shown that it is possible to build a credible and stable party with a membership of 2,000 people, without the hidden hand of one of the existing socialist parties of the old left manipulating its direction behind the scenes.
Jones is right that we can’t simply magic a party on the scale of Podemos out of thin air without first having first experienced a larger anti-austerity upsurge. But the disillusionment with Labour is already there. Both Left Unity’s rapid growth and the increased showing for the Green Party in opinion polls demonstrate that the traditional lines of left and right in British politics are being radically reconstituted.
Providing a political home for those who are breaking with the Labour right is not counter-posed to building a broad anti-austerity movement open to Labour supporters: it is possible to do both, ‘to walk and chew gum’, as the phrase goes.
There will no doubt be future realignments and Left Unity is very far from the finished product. But by establishing a new party that is democratic, un-sectarian, and free of big egos, it has already changed the political geography of the British left for the better. The harder job of making a breakthrough into mass politics lies ahead.