I am a language enthusiast mainly blogging about my experiences of learning Mandarin Chinese. Previously a journalist, I have written about social issues for the Guardian, the Independent, New Internationalist, Huffington Post, Equal Times and the Big Issue in the North, among other titles.
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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
“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
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!
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
“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
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 Andalucía’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
“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.”