Yes we can: Support from Spanish migrants fuels rise of Podemos

(Originally published by the Big Issue in the North)

In a small room at Friendship Meeting House in Manchester around 70 people are listening intently to a panel of Spanish activists talk about recent political events in their home country. Most of the audience are members of local left-wing groups who are keen to discover why the contrast between their failure to create a mass movement in the UK and the success of their Spanish comrades is so stark.

The meeting has the air of a lecture, with panellists and audience members equally willing to assume their roles as teachers and pupils. For the local activists gathered here there is one burning question: How is it that in the space of a year - a period when Britain’s newest radical party, Left Unity, has struggled to sign up 2000 supporters – Spain’s Podemos, formed in 2014, has built a membership of over 350,000 and overtaken the country’s two establishment parties to lead in the polls with the general elections only months away.

“We’re a country in which social movements are very much in touch with political reality and that’s something to feel proud of…” says Alberto Velazquez, a 37-year-old architect and one of the speakers. “In the UK there is a gap between internal debates taking place on the left, and the political disenchantment of ordinary people on the street.”

Like the rest of the panel, Velazquez is a member of the Podemos Manchester ‘Circle’, one of several hundred local groups set up around Spain and  around the world in support of the party. His story is depressingly familiar. He is articulate and highly educated but, like the majority of his peers, cannot find work back home. The country’s total unemployment stands at 5 million with youth unemployment at over 50%.  Velazquez’s prospects were even worse as the unemployment rate for architects is around 80%. 

Pablo Iglesias. Olaf Kosinsky/Wikimedia
“In Spain you began to feel as though work had become a luxury,” he tells me. “Leaving Spain you realise that professional workers are usually able to find a decent job or in the worst case scenario they find work outside their sector.”

The UK remains one of the most popular destinations for hundreds of thousands of Spanish migrants who have chosen to leave Spain in search of work since the recession hit in 2008. Between 2012 and 2014 there were 95,500 new national insurance registrations for Spanish people entering the UK, making the country Britain’s the third largest source of immigration, behind Poland and Romania.

Many of them, like Velazquez, are highly skilled and have little trouble finding work.

He and his friends in the circle are encouraged by the rise of Podemos and party leader Pablo Iglesias whose charisma and oratorical skill has delighted supporters at home and abroad. The party was officially formed in 2014 by Iglesias and a group of left wing academics at the Complutense University of Madrid, though its true origins can be traced to the ‘Indignados’ movement in 2011.

Inspired by the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, 50,000 activists camped out in the Puerta del Sol – Madrid’s central square - demanding an end to austerity, social inequality and political corruption.  Similar demonstrations took place in major cities around the country.

The movement failed to have a measurable impact on the general election which the right wing Popular Party won the following year despite the lowest turnout in Spain’s democratic history.  Yet it succeeded in mobilising a generation of disaffected youth, and helped foster a national atmosphere of political anger directed at the neoliberal agendas of the two major parties.

“I opened my eyes from the moment I realised that something was going on in Spain for the Indignados,” says Miguel Garcia de Frutos, a 36-year-old finance worker and member of Podemos Manchester.  De Frutos left Spain in 2004 after graduating with a degree in gemmology and finding himself on the unemployment scrapheap. He chuckles as he recalls young people’s negative perceptions of Spain’s pre-recession job market, at a time when it was significantly healthier than it is today.

“I remember when I first left Spain they were talking about ‘mileuristas’ – people who earn just above 1000 euros a month – like it was something really bad…but right now a mileurista is someone who is very lucky! Things change.”

After finding a temporary job in Ireland de Frutos moved to Manchester in 2006 where he has worked in banking ever since. Though his initial decision to leave Spain was not based on a prediction of the economic turmoil which would soon hit the country, he considers himself fortunate to have escaped the fate delivered to many of his friends who remained in the country. “I think I made a clever move without thinking about it,” he says.

By 2011, as news began to spread about the Indignados movement, de Frutos, who despite trying was still unable to find employment back home, had lost interest in politics. “I actually left Spain very angry and thinking that people don’t care about anything. They would only demonstrate if their football team was doing badly. When I saw that it was lasting for more than a week I started getting interested in the situation.”

Like participants in the Occupy movements, the Indignados were swiftly written off by politicians and media pundits and accused of lacking concrete political demands. Their anti-capitalist slogans made it clear that they were against social inequality, economic exploitation and political corruption but there was little in the way of a coherent political strategy.

Then, Iglesias, who had been hosting a popular political TV show called La Tuerka, on a local channel in Madrid, began to make his breakthrough in the mainstream media, appearing alongside seasoned commentators on political debate shows and quickly developing a reputation for his quick wit and aggressive debating style.  He called for an end to the government’s austerity policies, a reversal of cuts to health and education and a clamp down on multinational tax avoidance. 

In January 2014 Iglesias and several fellow activists held a press conference announcing their intention to form a political party on the condition that they receive 50,000 signatures of support from people in favour of their political agenda. Within 24 hours they had achieved their goal.

Unlike leaders of other Spanish parties on the left such as Izquierda Anticapitalista and Izquierda Unida, Iglesias was keen to distance himself from language reflecting traditional narratives of left and right. “It’s not a problem between left and right, it’s a problem between democracy and austerity and I think that democracy is going to win,” he recently told a BBC reporter.

“Iglesias and his colleagues in the department started to popularise a message and a way of talking that reflected quite well popular sentiments,” says Carlos Frade, a professor of sociology at the University of Salford and one of the oldest members of the Podemos Manchester circle.

Instead he uses terms like ‘la casta,’ (the establishment), to frame the debate as a battle between the economic interests of the ruling elites and those of the general public. In doing so he has captured the attention of people who might not normally associate themselves with the left, but are nevertheless incensed at the perceived injustice of public spending cuts in response to an economic crisis caused by politicians and bankers.

It’s a tactic which paid off for their close allies in Greece, Syriza, who took power with 36% of the vote in January and whose electoral success Podemos hopes to emulate.

“I’m following closely events in Greece,” says Frade. “If they achieve something and manage to bring about some real change the establishment is going to find it almost impossible to convey the opposite message. I think it’s very important because from now until December a lot of things have to be settled and it will be either defeat or the opposite. If Syriza fails it will be devastating.”

Yet Podemos face many challenges if they are to follow suit.

Opinion polls put Podemos on 28% in January. However in recent months their popularity has fallen and they are now polling at between 18%-22%, on par with the two major parties PP and PSOE. It’s a downward trend that can be attributed to a corporate media backlash and the emergence of a fourth major party, the centre-right Ciudadadanos (Citizens).

Perhaps the greatest source of anger among the party’s most virulent opponents is that Podemos has succeeded in shaking up Spain’s bipartisan political system in a remarkably short space of time. Furthermore, having established an enormous and organised support base at home and abroad it seems unlikely that they will disappear any time soon.

In January, hundreds of thousands of people travelled from all over Spain to hear Iglesias deliver a typically rousing speech in la Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s Central Square. Members of Podemos Manchester, were able to stream the event on YouTube as he dedicated his party’s efforts “to the people who have had to flee abroad to work and who we want back!”

“It’s a very strong message because most of them want to go back. They want to develop successful careers and you can’t blame anyone for that,” says Frade. 

“I would go back tomorrow if I could,” says de Frutos, “but I don’t want to go back to the same situation as when I left: living with my parents, temporary jobs and not being able to make any plans.” 

Members of Podemos circles are able to vote on the way the central party is run, including leadership and policy decisions. In an attempt to get more Spanish people involved in politics the Manchester group hold weekly meetings to discuss politics and organise events. Every two weeks they screen a film, usually related to Spanish society, before opening the floor for a lively political debate.  As word of the Circle spreads throughout the city’s growing Spanish community the events are becoming increasingly popular.

Members have also worked hard to raise awareness of the registration process that Spanish people living in the UK must go through in order to be eligible to vote in November. With around 2 million Spanish nationals now living outside the country, this may turn out to be an important task which could affect Podemos’ electoral prospects.

In March Podemos stormed into AndalucĂ­a’s regional parliament, winning 15 seats and a significant portion of the vote. Crucial to their success was the fact that 30% of foreign residents who voted in the Andalusian elections voted for Podemos, a higher share than any other party.

But winning the general elections may be a step too far. With polls showing support for the four biggest parties almost evenly split, it is likely Podemos would need to go into coalition in order to form a government. The only major party they could conceivably work with is the centrist, Socialist Party, but having built their popularity on an anti-establishment message, this would be seen by many activists as selling out.

“If they can get into government with one of the other left wing parties like Izquierda Unida that would be good,” says de Frutos, “But do a pact with la casta?”

He shakes his head. “No, because if you tolerate them you become one of them.”