- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
‘The results for the Left in Portugal confirm that [in Spain] we were right to go a different route,’ asserted former Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias last Monday. This came as both the Left Bloc and Communist Party suffered a near total wipe-out at the hands of the centre-left Socialist Party in Portugal’s general election, with their combined number of seats going from 31 to 11 in the 30 January poll. Whereas these parties had supplied Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa with external parliamentary support without entering government, across the border in Spain, Iglesias held out for a full coalition after the 2019 Spanish elections.
In terms of advancing its agenda against the resistance of PSOE centrists, coalition has been a gruelling process for the five Unidas Podemos ministers. But at a moment of political and social exhaustion, it has also allowed for a successful renewal of its leadership, with the Left’s new figurehead Yolanda Díaz lacking a national profile before taking up her role as labour minister. Replacing Iglesias last May as deputy prime minister, Díaz has rapidly become Spain’s most popular political leader with polling showing that nearly one fifth of 2019 PSOE voters now prefer her to lead the next government over Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
Holding the powerful labour ministry has given Díaz and the Left greater ownership over some of the coalition’s most popular policies, such as the Covid furlough scheme, a series of minimum wage hikes and, most recently, a progressive reform of the labour laws (which only gained parliamentary approval by the narrowest of margins last Thursday). While the labour reform did not fully repeal the PP’s regressive 2012 legislation, a core commitment of the programme for government, it did secure substantive advances for labour at a moment when the Left and progressive social forces remain demobilised. Above all, the deal is at its strongest in its recovery of unions’ collective bargaining rights.
Yet the growing momentum behind Díaz has yet to be tested by any major political crisis, and in 2022, she faces the difficult task of reorganising the country’s fractious left space around a new unity platform. Not a member of the Podemos party itself (but rather a rank and file member of the Communist Party), some on the Spanish left have voiced concerns that her new ‘broad front’ initiative could end up being too personality-driven.
This is something that Podemos’ new head of organisation, Lilith Verstrynge, rejects. In the following interview with Tribune, she insists that a strong unity candidacy and a growing belief in the Left’s ability to govern could see the Spanish left regain much of the ground it has lost since the height of Podemos’ anti-establishment revolt in 2015/16. Yet for her this will require political maturity and a willingness to adapt to a new political cycle with quite distinct coordinates to that of the of the 2010s.
The Left in Transition
Pablo Iglesias’ resignation last May left Podemos without its founding leader who had been key both in terms of anchoring the party’s identity and also in ensuring its hegemony within the parliamentary left. How would you explain his shock exit and what role do you see Podemos playing in Yolanda Díaz’s plans to reorganise the left space under her leadership?
When Podemos was founded in 2014, the party was very much centred around Pablo’s leadership. He was capable not only of articulating people’s indignation at the economic injustices arising from the 2008 financial crisis, but also of tapping into their anger towards an unrepresentative two-party political system. He led Podemos for seven and half years, initially with the promise of taking advantage of this legitimacy crisis in the political system so as to win government power in ‘one leap’. This was during the party’s first electoral cycle in 2015/16. Then, as the system re-stabilised and the established parties regained ground, he sought to force a progressive coalition with the centre-left Socialist Party.
Yet while having become deputy prime minister in January 2020, he was also very aware that his broader appeal had been eroded over time. The constant vilification in the press had taken its toll on his popularity and he had also become a hate figure for the far right, which increasingly sought out confrontations with him as a means to mobilise the most reactionary elements in Spanish society. In this respect, he did something unusual, which showed real political generosity: he chose to leave office only half way through his term so as to allow for a successful transition in the Left’s leadership. He could have easily stayed another two years but recognised the Left would be better served by using this time to reorganise under new management.
This transition has seen a more plural leadership emerge, led largely by women, with Social Affairs Minister Ione Belarra taking over as Podemos’ new leader while the wider Unidas Podemos alliance [which also includes the Communist Izquierda Unida and various regional platforms] is being headed by Yolanda Díaz. Through her management of the government’s furlough scheme during the pandemic, as well as in her negotiation of labour reform legislation that strengthens workers’ rights, Yolanda has come to represent a form of institutional leadership better suited to the current political cycle.
The pandemic has opened up a new political moment in Spanish politics. If the post-2008 Indignados cycle was characterised by a form of politicisation through the questioning of elites and broad popular mobilisation, we are now in a moment of exhaustion and depoliticisation. Most people are sick of political controversy and just want to delegate responsibility to those that they trust to govern. The Left needs to adapt to this new cycle by demonstrating its credibility as a governing force, one that is capable of securing concrete advances for the social majority.
Ultimately, leaders like Yolanda and Ione are better placed to do this and Podemos’ role in this new moment has to be about consolidating the wider left space under Yolanda as a credible governing force. The other major task is the need for unity on the left after a period of internal conflict, with Podemos backing Yolanda’s plans for a new broad front platform.
Díaz is set to launch this new ‘broad front’ platform in the coming months to replace the existing Unidas Podemos electoral vehicle. Podemos’ exact role in this project remains unclear. In a recent interview, Equality Minister and Podemos’ number two Irene Montero said that ‘we [in Podemos] have to place our trust in Yolanda so that she can fly [on her own] and even distance herself.’ Is there a sense in Podemos that the party faces a certain loss of centrality as this process of reaggregation on the Spanish left proceeds?
No, I think rather than a question of our relative centrality or not, the issue is what role each of the different actors involved should play. We see the broad front project in terms of building a structure that can reach more people and we understand there are certain tasks related to this that Yolanda is better positioned to take charge of.
While Podemos has built a loyal electorate over the last eight years, right now Yolanda is capable of eliciting wider support across Spanish society. She is by far the best placed figure to broaden the Left’s vote, not only because people connect with her, her authenticity and charisma, but they can imagine her as prime minister. Her close links to the trade union movement also open up new avenues for alliances, and her policy achievements around things like raising the minimum wage touch directly on the material welfare of working people.
In the end, this should work as a complementary process: having a candidate who is somewhat dissociated from the existing left parties, and who can project a more independent profile, while, at the same time, these parties themselves focus on consolidating their existing electoral bases and putting down greater organisational roots. For us in Podemos, this also makes sense as the media has repeatedly targeted anyone who has taken up a role within the party’s hierarchy, seeking to undermine their credibility.
At the same time, the broad front is also premised on a process of reconciliation on the Spanish left. Not having a role in either Podemos’ or Izquierda Unida’s own party leadership also means Yolanda is better able to engage with other sectors, like [Íñigo Errejón’s Podemos breakaway formation] Más País. She has already made moves in its direction, even participating in a joint event with Mas Pais’ Monica Garcia before Christmas. We are still at an early stage but if Yolanda’s candidacy continues to gain traction and the process of developing a new platform moves forward, it might become harder for Más País to refuse to participate, not least because among progressive voters there is a real desire for left unity.
But the Left in Europe more generally is struggling with the task of renewal before the change in political cycle. We have to be able to show political generosity, cede space when necessary, as well as engage in honest analysis of the demands of the current moment.
This new political cycle, defined in part by the waning of Spain’s left populist moment, has translated, in turn, into a pivot to a more reformist strategy, with Díaz herself defending a form of labourism centred on classic social democratic demands. How does such a reorientation sit with Podemos’ initial more transformative ambitions to overhaul Spain’s post-Franco constitutional regime?
We are no longer in the moment of occupying the city squares, with its rallying cry of ‘they don’t represent us’, but instead are faced with having to surf the contradictions of government. The latter requires a difficult balancing act: administering concrete policies that will have a positive impact on people’s lives, like the labour reform or the new sexual consent law, but while also maintaining a clear discourse around the need to transform wider state structures. In short we have to combine more populist forms of leadership, which aim to confront power, with forms that are more technocratic and centred on progressive administration.
In reality, within the new broad front platform you are going to find both forms, and they can be made to coexist, though it is not straightforward. While advancing policies with the limited administrative power at our disposal, the Left, as a junior partner in the coalition, also has to criticise government policy where it disagrees with it. We should not see our participation in government as precluding us from speaking out and in Podemos we have not been afraid to confront entrenched forms of power.
The labour reform negotiated by Yolanda Díaz is probably the coalition’s most important piece of legislation to date, and contains a number of advances in terms of workers’ rights, but it also leaves in place some of the regressive aspects of the PP’s 2012 reform, above all the greater freedoms afforded to the corporate sector around imposing layoffs. Could this legislation have gone further as the pro-independence Catalan and Basque parties argued?
Well, this reform represents the first advance for workers in decades. Rather than making employment more precarious, as all previous reforms have done over the past thirty years, it moves in the opposite direction, taking important steps to strengthen labour rights and protections. Above all, it’s a legal instrument designed to deal with Spain’s high level of temporary employment, to rebalance the field of collective bargaining in favour of labour and to boost wages.
It includes many concrete advances. For example, it abolishes fixed-term contracts for works and services, which are common in sectors such as construction and logistics. Under the PP legislation, the widespread use of such contracts has meant that one in four labour contracts currently last less than a week. Many workers [who in reality are filling permanent posts] have been left to work on a series of consecutive fixed-term contracts, with little or no job security. In contrast, the new law will see these contracts converted into permanent ones by default, with the use of temporary contracts restricted to substitutions or very specific production circumstances.
It also shut the door on using subcontracting as means to lower wages because it reestablishes the primacy of sectoral wage agreements over company-level ones—thus ensuring unions’ ability to negotiate a standardised level of pay across a sector. And in terms of compensation for dismissal, the position of workers who had been on temporary contracts will also improve as they gain new rights under their new permanent contracts.
All the government’s reforms are logically conditioned by the balance of forces at cabinet, as well as by the terms of the coalition agreement. Sometimes we would like to go further or faster, but I think in this case it is important to underline that we are facing a major shift in direction away from neoliberalism, with this reform representing the first milestone in decades for the advancement of workers’ rights.
During the negotiations to form the coalition, it was our insistence on holding the labour brief that really held up the talks. In terms of the talks, it would have been much easier to just accept ministries like equality, social rights, and consumer affairs, which on first glance might have broad, important briefs, but at the level of administrative power, depend on other strategic ministries to actually see through policies. Within an unequal coalition arrangement, controlling the labour ministry has given us access to meaningful administrative power and ensured we are associated with many of the coalition’s key social advances.
More broadly, how would you draw up the balance sheet for the first half of the coalition’s term in office? If you have extracted a number of partial but necessary concessions against PSOE resistance, is it also fair to say that there is growing frustration at the overall pace of reforms among progressive voters?
Over the past two years, Unidas Podemos ministers have rolled out a number of substantial policies in the midst of a global pandemic. One example is the guaranteed minimum income scheme, which had problems in terms of its initial implementation but which now reaches 350,000 households and helped contribute to a three percent rise in income among the poorest ten percent of the population during the pandemic. Or the increases we have secured in the minimum wage [which has risen by twenty-two percent since 2019]. In both cases, the prevailing narrative in the media was that these social measures would be disastrous economically but we have seen job creation surge past pre-pandemic levels, even as we are proposing raising the minimum wage again in February.
Equality Minister Irene Montero is also finalising a new ‘active’ sexual consent law and trans rights legislation, which while framed as cultural battles, will translate in concrete terms into improving the lives of people within these social collectives. The new housing law, negotiated by Ione Belarra, will introduce rent control mechanisms for the first time, and she is also spearheading a new mental health law.
But beyond that, we are trying to ensure the implementation of the programme for government with only thirty-five MPs while PSOE controls the major economic ministries. And there is a certain fatigue not only within the population at the pace of the reforms but within the government itself. Every day is a renegotiation over policies we have already agreed on, and our job is to ensure such measures do not get watered down while also explaining to people what it means to be the junior partner in coalition. We need to get better at communicating the reality of the balance of forces.
This is particularly the case because one of the defining features of the current moment is the level of political disaffection in society, with sixty-four percent of Spaniards stating they don’t believe the political system can change. But at the same time, seventy percent are also in favour of greater state intervention in things like the energy market, which is in line with our policy to establish public companies across all key strategic sectors. We have to be able to explain to voters that our presence in the coalition has secured advances which otherwise would not have been possible, but the reason we cannot have a public energy company is because we govern with PSOE. If you want us to go further, we need more seats and more power.
One common criticism made of Unidas Podemos in government is that it has struggled to manage expectations and, at times, it promises more from the reforms it has agreed than it can actually deliver. For example, initially with the guaranteed minimum income, there was a lot of frustration at the speed of the rollout and how complicated it was to apply. Or with the housing law, where PSOE insisted rent controls should be limited to corporate landlords.
It’s difficult. For example, my mother is an activist with the anti-eviction platform La PAH and helped draft the legislative proposal that grassroots organisations put forward for the new housing law. It was a really ambitious proposal, detailing comprehensive measures to solve the major issues that are exacerbating the housing crisis in Spain. But then after we are left facing the political reality of coalition. And given the choice between simply opting out of the institutions and not changing anything or taking the risk of being inside and having the influence to change things little by little; in Podemos, we have always chosen the latter.
When I talk to people like my mother, it is necessary to be humble and say, ‘I know you expected more,’ but this is an important step. The agreement with PSOE for the housing law, which was approved at cabinet this week, is the first such law since the return to democracy in the 1970s, and will allow local governments to regulate rental prices in high pressure zones. We also want more and should not be afraid to say so but the partial advances we have secured also cannot be denied.
Ultimately, we have resisted better than most expected us to, managing to negotiate the contradictions of office while rebuilding before the new electoral cycle in 2023. Our minimum target for then is to secure a second term for the coalition with a greater left presence at cabinet so we can go further, but our real ambition is to make Yolanda Spain’s first ever female prime minister.
But before that, over the next two years, there are two other major fronts we need to advance legislation on. First, in the area of civil rights, where we are looking to overhaul the laws around freedom of expression and repeal the Partido Popular’s gag law. It is no secret PSOE have hitherto not wanted to open negotiations on these issues and we will have to do the heavy lifting on this. The second area is tax reform, where we are pushing for a wealth tax as well as a series of other progressive measures to tackle inequality and ensure those who have the most pay the most.