Days of hope in Spain

As Britain enters the last week of a political campaign that has featured so much fear and hate, in contrast, in Spain, the last week before its general election begins with high hopes for the left coalition Podemos Unidos (an alliance between Podemos and Isquierda Unida, the old Eurocommunist grouping). At the time of writing there is a very definite possibility that the left as a whole (including PSOE) will achieve a majority at the election on Sunday.

The coalition’s name (United We Can) is part of the very smart campaign that has included a manifesto that looks like an IKEA catalogue, the adoption of Ghostbusters as a theme tune, and a new logo featuring a heart:

Podemos Logo

And Podemos is indeed a very smart party, which is why it has grown to become Spain’s second largest party only two years after it was formed. The theory that informs its campaigning has been at the heart of its rise – and is discussed in our book Podemos: In the name of the people.

A commitment to populism underpins Podemos’ thinking, and in this it draws very heavily on the work of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. The idea is that in order to mobilise, it is necessary to construct an internal social frontier that expresses (and by so doing helps construct a sense of) the divisions in society. This helps identify an enemy – in the case of Spain this has been defined by Podemos as the casta, the (privileged) caste – but it also identifies what kind of hegemonic strategy is needed to construct the people who will oppose the casta. (The book’s title in Spanish was Construir Pueblo.)

At the book’s launch on Saturday, Chantal Mouffe outlined some of this theory, Sirio Canos reported on highlights of the campaign so far, and Owen Jones discussed some of the reasons that Podemos has been so successful. One of the key reasons he pointed to was its emphasis on communication, and in particular communication that has some kind of emotional charge, and a capacity to change the parameters of debate (again this is straight out of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy).

So, for example, on the issue of patriotism, instead of offering inclusive platitudes while accepting that immigration is indeed a problem, Podemos has turned the debate round to ask: what is more patriotic than wanting to look after the nation’s poor and vulnerable? What is more patriotic than fighting for people’s rights? In other words, they discuss what kind of country they want to be, not how great they already are, and in doing so, they change the terms of the debate.

In identifying the frontier, and showing clearly who is to blame for the problems of Spanish society, Podemos has gone a long way to preventing the immigrant blaming that is so prevalent in Britain. They have channelled anger towards the casta, not immigrants. Things are changing now with the Corbyn leadership, but for too long Labour had no explanation for the current crisis, since it agreed with the ideas of political economy that had led to it. Lacking a clear analysis of who to blame, people have been susceptible to other narratives.

Podemos shows us that being smart does not mean bending to the dominant arguments. It is possible to put forward a counter narrative and win people for it. If a few more in the Labour leadership could begin to think along similar lines, we might be able to start shifting away from a politics of fear and towards a politics of hope – even after living through these recent grim days.