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The Future Is Sumar

The Spanish left entered government as part of a coalition for the first time since the civil war in the 1930s — and is reaping the rewards of strengthening workers’ rights and rejecting neoliberalism.

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 18: The Second Vice-President of the Government and Minister of Labor, Yolanda Diaz, during a Sumar event at the Circulo de Bellas Artes, on 18 February, 2023 in Madrid, Spain. During the meeting, Yolanda Diaz met with experts, users, professionals, organizations representing the sector, scientific societies, NGOs and healthcare unions to discuss the future of healthcare in Spain. (Photo By Fernando Sanchez / Europa Press via Getty Images)

‘I know very well who I represent in the cabinet,’ Spain’s left-wing labour minister Yolanda Díaz insisted in February. ‘I take my seat not to represent the powerful but to give voice to the workers of this country… For the first time since the [1930s] Second Republic, the labour ministry is not simply an accessory to the finance ministry or subordinate to the country’s major corporations.’

Since taking over from Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias as deputy prime minister in mid-2021, Díaz has emerged not only as the Spanish left’s new figurehead but also one of the country’s most popular political leaders. A labour lawyer from Galicia and member of the Spanish Communist Party, Díaz didn’t enjoy a high profile before she took up the ministerial role in January 2020. But it didn’t take long for her to gain prominence: her negotiation of the Spanish state’s Covid-19 furlough scheme, which guaranteed the wages of 3.5 million workers, was one of the most important interventions of recent years.

Since then, her labour ministry has continued to spearhead some of the most impactful policies of the PSOE–Unidas Podemos coalition. These include a series of minimum-wage rises, legislation cracking down on bogus self-employment in the gig economy, and, in 2022, the flagship reform of the country’s labour laws — a measure which strengthens collective bargaining rights and severely limits the use of precarious temporary work contracts.

In this respect, Díaz’s popularity is quite distinct from the successful populist insurgency of the early Podemos. She has become a household name, not as an anti-establishment outsider vowing a break with the political system but as a government minister seeking to guarantee the rights and income of working-class people during the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis.

‘Yolanda’s capacity for institutional management has chimed with the need for certainty,’ one of her senior advisers tells Tribune. ‘For the first time since Spain’s transition to democracy [in the 1970s], the political space to the left of PSOE is seen as being able to govern.’

Ahead of December’s general election, she is articulating a new left-wing electoral project that builds on her close ties to the trade unions. Named Sumar, or Unite, the platform is projected to make major gains. In a series of polls since Christmas, it places around 18.5 percent and between 55 and 59 seats — that is, potentially twenty more MPs than the combined 2019 electoral result for the Unidas Podemos alliance and former ally Más País.

Coming Out Ahead

Surprisingly, Sumar’s polling suggests that a reorganised left could come out of its gruelling term as PSOE’s junior partner in a stronger position — at least electorally. That would be a remarkable achievement given the challenges of the last four years.

Excluded from the major ministries, Unidas Podemos has had to accept a series of unpalatable decisions in foreign, defence, and immigration policies while painstakingly advancing its social agenda against PSOE resistance in areas where it holds portfolios. Particularly during Iglesias’s final months in the cabinet, defined by governmental deadlock and falling polling numbers, it looked like the Left would leave office an exhausted force.

As the Podemos founder stepped away from frontline politics, there was a recognition that his attempts to combine a left–populist critique of the Spanish state with participation in government had largely failed in the post-pandemic terrain. Highly charged controversies around lawfare, media bias, and speech laws, as well as public infighting within the coalition, appeared as ‘noise’ to a weary, progressive electorate — even if what Iglesias had to say was often valid and important.

A series of regional election disasters further underscored how the major concepts of the post-Indignados Spanish left — rupture from the post-Franco 1978 constitutional regime, democratic revolution, new versus old politics — had lost their mobilising power. A prolonged phase of decline, it seemed, was inevitable.

Yet these first two years of the coalition also saw Díaz’s rapid rise, as well as her deepening alliance with Spain’s major trade unions, Comisiones Obreras and UGT. The close working relationship between her ministry and unions was key to advancing a more substantive labour law reform than many in PSOE and Brussels were comfortable with, as well as to securing a raft of measures aimed at protecting living standards as the cost-of-living crisis deepened.

Under pressure from the Left and the unions, PSOE has agreed over the last year to inflation-level increases of the minimum wage, public pensions, and key welfare programmes, as well as to the imposition of a temporary wealth tax and moderate windfall taxes on the energy giants and banks. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has also accepted Unidas Podemos’ emergency proposals to slash transport fares (including making commuter and medium-distance trains free for at least sixteen months) and to intervene in the electricity market with a partial cap. These were measures that greatly contributed to Spain ending 2022 with the lowest inflation levels in the eurozone (at 5.5 percent, compared to an average 9.2 percent).

Widening the Base

As Díaz launched Sumar in July 2022, she insisted the experience of implementing policies of social protection and state intervention could provide the Left with a fresh set of coordinates for a new majoritarian project — one capable of widening the Left’s electoral base, as the early Podemos had done in 2015. As one of the coordinators overseeing the platform’s programme, Antonio Baylos, professor of labour law, recently argued that Sumar’s focus had to be less on identitarian struggles and more on ‘a material politics’ that can offer Spain’s public a tangible alternative to discredited neoliberal formulas.

In this respect, Sumar’s messaging has emphasised bread-and-butter achievements in office while, at the same time, positioning the new platform as a deeper reforming project that has aspirations beyond the confines of the coalition government. At the unveiling of Sumar’s programme in January, Díaz even invoked the Beveridge Report and Clement Attlee’s 1945 UK Labour government as precedents. In a period of ‘epochal change comparable to the 1940s’, she argued that a progressive decade could be won in Spain with a politics based on social protection in the face of growing uncertainty, renewed agency for the public sector, and an expansion of labour and social rights.

Though Sumar’s ten-year programme ‘for a new country’ remains a work in progress, she has flagged several policy priorities. Talking about the conditions highlighted in the slogan ‘minimum wage, maximum rent’, Díaz says that the two immediate challenges facing Spain are combating income inequality and guaranteeing housing as a fundamental right. Longer-term goals include expanding democracy into the workplace and broadening social rights in healthcare so as to include free universal dental and optical care. In this respect, she is attempting a balancing act of pointing to the incremental gains of the last three years as proof the Left can govern effectively while also seeking distance from PSOE through the promise of a much more transformative agenda.

Díaz has also argued that nine years after Podemos’ initial electoral breakthrough, the Spanish left requires a major reorganisation — with Sumar having to go beyond a simple alliance between the existing parties. The platform’s initial phase of development has involved a series of public events across Spain, which have taken place without formal involvement from any left-wing party and have been conceived as a ‘listening process’ between Díaz and civil society. This route has created major tensions between Díaz and the Podemos leadership, with the latter refusing to attend Sumar’s formal launch in early April due to disputes over candidate selection.

But, Díaz argues, the platform needs to move away from internal wrangling. Seen from this perspective, the construction of Sumar at a distance from the existing forces has been necessary to ensure her capacity to exercise authority over a fractious left space. The aim seems to be to generate organisational muscle and a cadre of her own before sitting down with the parties to negotiate a joint electoral slate. An important part of this leading cadre is coming from the world of organised labour, in particular from the Comisiones Obreras union of which Díaz’s father was a founding figure during the Franco dictatorship. ‘This is another difference with Podemos,’ her adviser argues, ‘where most of the original leadership was recruited from student politics or a professional background.’

An Election Year

As Spain approaches local and regional elections in May and a general election in December, polls are on a knife-edge. Facing renewed corruption scandals as well as declining support in its traditional southern heartland of Andalucía, PSOE increasingly looks like the weak link in terms of securing a second term for the progressive coalition — with most polls showing them trailing the right-wing Popular Party by two to five points.

Much will depend on the economic situation, with workers facing fresh pain through soaring food prices and repeated European Central Bank interest rate hikes. Díaz has called for further emergency measures in response, while the unions are seeking a 13.84 percent minimum increase in salaries across Spain for the three-year period from 2022 to 2024.

No such national agreement seems forthcoming, however, and despite salaries rising on average by only 2.69 percent in 2022, the country has so far not seen an equivalent to the current strike waves in the UK and France — pointing to the limits of managing the cost-of-living crisis through a framework of social democratic governance and social partnership agreements.

Nor will managing intra-left tensions be easy as Díaz seeks to finalise a united electoral slate around Sumar. With the progressive and right-wing electoral blocs so evenly poised, the election is likely to be decided by who finishes third behind PSOE and the Popular Party — Sumar or the far-right Vox.

A second term in office with a more favourable balance of power is on the table for the Left, and with it a more transformative legislative agenda. But a hard-right coalition with Vox’s Santiago Abascal as interior minister is the other most likely outcome. In an era that often prompts writers to reach for historical parallels, the choice is more than a little familiar.