It’s almost a political cliche. If a country is battered by economic disaster, its ever poorer citizens will turn in droves to the crude xenophobia of the populist right. A lack of secure jobs and affordable homes, plummeting living standards: Johnny Foreigner proves an all-too-convenient scapegoat. This is a script that seems to have been followed to the letter in austerity Britain. Anti-establishment fury has been funnelled into an anti-immigration party led by an ex-City broker who wants to stick it to the man by privatising public services, slashing taxes on the rich, and attacking hard-won British workers’ rights. But, as Spain shows us, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Spain is in a mess, with unemployment at almost 25%, and over half its young people without work, a plight that can damage an individual for life. And in comparison with Britain it has been transformed by immigration at lightning speed: in the early 90s fewer than one in every hundred Spaniards were immigrants; in the noughties, the number surged sixfold, from 924,000 immigrants officially registered in 2000 to 5.6 million in 2009. Yet, despite rampant joblessness, poverty and insecurity, parties that have prioritised clampdowns on immigrants have failed to thrive. Instead, disaffection has found a different expression: a party whose premise is that ordinary Spaniards should not have to pay for a crisis they had nothing to do with.
Podemos is founded on the politics of hope: its English translation is “we can”. It was founded only this year but won 1.2m votes and five seats in May’s European elections. And now it has topped opinion polls, eclipsing the governing rightwing People’s party and the ostensibly centre-left PSOE – the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party. There are few precedents for such an explosive political ascent in modern western Europe; in Spain, a discredited political elite appears to be tottering.
Not that Podemos simply materialised out of nowhere. In the buildup to Spain’s 2011 general election, hundreds of thousands of indignados took to the streets in protest at the political elite. Yet without political leadership and direction, such movements – although they can mobilise the disengaged – invariably fizzle out. As Iñigo Errejón, the Podemos election supremo, has written, before May’s European elections, “social mobilisation had been in retreat. Among large sections of the left the most pessimistic assumptions prevailed.” But Podemos was the child of the indignados movement, a party that emphasises bottom-up democratic participation: where the indignados had neighbourhood assemblies, Podemos has “circles” that take similar forms. There are even circles among Britain’s Spanish diaspora in London and Manchester. The funding for its European campaign was largely crowdsourced, and its policies and priorities are decided partly through online voting.
While older voters are more likely to remain loyal to a decaying PSOE, it is younger, educated voters who flock to Podemos. In part this is the “graduate without a future”, to use the journalist Paul Mason’s characterisation, on the march. As Errejón has put it, Podemos rests on the assumption that Spain’s two-party regime – founded in the aftermath of Franco’s death in 1975 – is in crisis, resulting in a “breakdown in consensus and the dislocation of traditional political identities”.
But Podemos has undoubtedly thrived only because it has shredded the old left rulebook. Spain’s traditional Communist-led United Left has itself received a boost, winning 10% of the votes in the European elections, and even beating Podemos. But it’s clear that Podemos is now surging because it eschews standard leftwing terminology. “In order to do politics differently, we need to do language differently,” Podemos’s Eduardo Maura tells me. “When you do politics, one of the things you have to ask yourselves is – what are you aiming at? You could aim at people who already have a political identity, who are an already signed-up leftist. We are trying to talk to people who don’t necessarily have this kind of identity.”
Instead, Podemos talks of rescuing Spain’s democracy from la casta, or the establishment; of winning over “social majorities” who oppose cuts, including people who don’t identify with the left. Rather than talk of nationalisations, Podemos preaches public control and accountability.
It is a strategy that makes sense. Across western Europe, the old industrial working class – with its relatively stable jobs and cohesive communities based around workplaces – has given way to a more fragmented and insecure service-sector workforce. The decline of trade unionism and the ingenious spinning of the climax of the cold war to mean “the end of history” means that the new generations grew up without the old culture of the traditional left. That means the forms of organising and communicating that often defined the old left and labour movements are now out of date. Podemos’s message is: adapt and thrive.
Other approaches have upset the more traditional left. Podemos has focused much of its appeal on its charismatic frontman, Pablo Iglesias, an academic who rose to prominence as a panellist on TV political debates. It was a pragmatic decision – Iglesias was far more recognisable than the party – but it represents a departure from the left’s traditional collective approach. They have learned, too, from the wave of progressive governments that have swept to power in Latin America.
Podemos is not alone. In Greece Syriza has long eclipsed Pasok, the country’s social democratic party that turned on its own supporters by implementing disastrous austerity policies. Slovenia’s newly formed United Left has risen to prominence this year. And in the Netherlands the Socialist party has experienced occasional surges in popularity.
For those of us in Britain exasperated by the channelling of anti-establishment sentiment into the pro-rich xenophobia of Ukip, it is impossible not to admire the Podemos experience. But such parties cannot simply be transplanted from one country to another: cultural and political contexts differ; the problems of Britain and Spain are often similar, but differ in scale and specifics. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system represents a formidable block on any new party emerging.
But our political system is in crisis too. Discontent is bubbling away. The combined totals of the two main parties are plummeting. If the political elite continues to fail to meet people’s needs and aspirations while wealth and power are redistributed to the top, then who knows? Maybe – just maybe – a party that sets its sights on the powerful, rather than the poor, will end up thriving instead.
Owen Jones is a columnist and the author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. His new book, The Establishment – And How They Get Away With It, is published in September 2014.