What I learned from Podemos

I’ve spent nearly a week a travelling Spain — and the nations that make it up, like Catalonia and Galicia — with Podemos, an anti-austerity party that has enjoyed an explosive rise after being founded two years ago. The Podemos project and its strategies cannot be simply imported into other countries. New left movements and parties and how they pan out are specific to the histories, cultures and political contexts of each country. But it would be absurd not to learn from a party that has achieved an astonishing level of popularity in such a short period of time. So, this is what I learned.

The importance of social movements

Podemos didn’t come out of nowhere: in large part, the party is the product of social movements going back years. There was the indignados, a mass movement of protests and occupations directed against the Spanish political elite in 2011, as well as, say, anti-eviction movements. There is always a potential tension here, because many activists resent the idea that their cause could be politically co-opted as they see it, and often reject even the idea of leadership. But these movements helped mobilise and politicise a large chunk of Spanish society. The left will not flourish confined to one party alone; it needs a flourishing ecosystem of movements, inspiring people, politicising them, forcing issues on the agenda, putting opponents on the defensive. Grassroots, community-based movements are essential.

Patriotism

The left often feels deeply uncomfortable with the idea of ‘patriotism’, regarding is as tantamount to chauvinism and undermining the left’s internationalist mission. But Podemos have had no qualms when it comes to developing a progressive form of patriotism, even peppering speeches with the word. Public sector workers who look after their fellow citizens; people through Spanish history who fought for democracy and freedom; building a new, just Spain — all elements of Podemos’ redefined patriotism. This has to be an inclusive and sophisticated patriotism, because Spain is a country of different nations. The left is often smeared by its opponents for being unpatriotic — even overtly hostile to its own nation — because it opposes the current status quo. Allowing such an image to stick is fatal. There is nothing more patriotic than wanting to rid your own country of injustice — and that’s something the left everywhere can learn from Podemos.

Abandoning the style of the old left

This is perhaps the most difficult to stomach for many old-style leftists. The colour of Podemos is purple, not red. Words like ‘socialism’ are difficult to find in their leaders’ speeches. Podemos even rejected ‘left’ versus ‘right’ terminology, opting for people versus elites instead. Given most people do not think in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’ — it’s far too abstract for most — this is very sensible. One possible fate of the left is that it could become a minority subculture, depending on rhetoric that is comforting for the converted but alienating for everybody else. Podemos show that it is possible to reach far beyond the confines of the activist left with the right communication.

Winning over middle-class people

A puzzling critique I’ve seen of Podemos is that their voters are disproportionately middle-class. This often comes from people who claim the left is unable to reach middle-class voters, so they are generally trying to have it both ways. It is a tremendous success for a left party to win a significant chunk of middle-class voters. Life is increasingly insecure and precarious for middle-class and working-class people alike; the left needs to build coalitions of middle-class and working-class people by finding issues that unite them. Podemos have pitched directly to the self-employed, whose ranks are growing dramatically in countries like Britain.

Hope and optimism

The left often come across as dreary and miserable, full of anger and little else. But what you notice about Podemos rallies is how full of hope and optimism they are. Their chant is ¡Si se puede! — ‘Yes we can’, unapologetically ripped off Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Their speeches are full of enthusiasm at the sort of Spain that can be built. This shining optimism is a key element of their success.

Having a vision

The left has been in a defensive posture for a long time; it is often far clearer what the left is against, rather than what it is for. Podemos have emphasised the sort of society they would like to create — on everything from the democratic structure of Spain to a transformed economy.

Leadership matters

Of course it does. Pablo Iglesias — who made his name as a charismatic TV debater and presenter — is a superb communicator. The Podemos-backed Mayors of Barcelona and Madrid — Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena — are hugely popular across the country. Inspiring leadership clearly has a role.

Making politics exciting and participatory

Podemos try to make politics fun, when the left often have a knack of making it as dreary and tedious as possible. When their leadership march on to the stage at Podemos rallies, it is not The Internationale being blasted from speakers, but the Ghostbusters theme tune. The day before the election, much of the Podemos leadership went off to watch Star Wars. Many of their rallies emphasise involvement from the floor; panels often don’t have a chair, but involve each panellist making a contribution than posing a question to the next speaker.

Building coalitions

In an era of fragmented politics, Podemos have understood the need to build broad coalitions. The Podemos grouping in Parliament is actually made up of a number of local movements, like En Comu Podem in Catalonia, Compromís-Podem in Valencia and En Marea in Galicia, which can develop their own grassroots localised character. Indeed, these local movements are often the most successful.

Mobilising young people successfully

Young people in countries like Britain tend to vote for left-of-centre parties in great numbers, but turnout is often low. Podemos have a distinctively youthful character and have managed to develop a modern, forward-looking, exciting politics that enthuses young people. I met lots of young people excitedly waiting at rallies who looked like they belonged in pop concerts, not political events.

If the left don’t succeed, the populist right are waiting

Spain lacks a mass xenophobic party like France (the National Front) or Britain (UKIP). If the left had failed to get its act together in Spain, though, who knows? Social democracy is in crisis all over Europe and it is leaving a vacuum that is either being filled by new movements of the left like Podemos and Syriza or of the populist anti-immigration right.