Sunday’s election in Portugal confirmed the trend. It is not a blip. The European left is where it was in the 1930s and 1950s – full of anger at the ravages of contemporary capitalism and anguish at the treatment meted out on the poor and vulnerable by a social welfare system running out of cash – but without the intellectual vision of presenting an alternative that commands a majority in the ballot box.
In Spain voters are presented with a book of ballot papers for each party list. You do not make a X or list by numbers. You present your ID card at the polling station where you are tip out the party sheet you support, put it in an envelope and depose it in a ballot box. At least 40, sometimes many more, parties can offer themselves for election. At the last major test, the May regional and local elections, the fourth biggest number of votes were the empty envelopes placed in the ballot box showing voters’ disgust at the mainstream parties. Forty-one per cent of Portuguese voters also stayed at home. The new rightist-cum-Trotskyist refrain that all politics is rotten is insinuating its way into voters’ consciousness. If politicians are all corrupt why bother voting? The de-democratisation of Europe is destroying the democratic left.
The demonstrations in Puerta de Sol in the heart of Madrid, as if Trafalgar or Leicester Squares were permanently occupied in a massive surge of popular protest rather in the manner of Paris 1968 (the Spaniards had to wait until the 1980s to enjoy the 1968 moments), continue to reverberate. But unlike May 1968, the 15 May movement, (15M in Spanish) is critical of the socialist government. The political class is attacked. 15M says the Senate should be abolished; MPs’ pensions axed; all expenses and official cars axed; less pay for councillors; and no more parliamentary aides. The disgust at the political class and bureaucracy reflects the kind of rightwing Trotskyism we saw over the MPs’ expenses scandal and which the press and some ministers here enjoy whipping up over civil service or town hall pay and expenses. It is the classical cry from below that those who govern are all rotten and corrupt. But equally the 15M movement demands more public expenditure on jobs, pensions and welfare. A key demand is that professors and lecturers should get major pay increases.
Over-excited commentators have talked of the Spanish Revolution or made overblown comparisons to Tahrir Square or Tunisia. But the Spanish socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has announced he will stand down. As with the Labour party choosing Gordon Brown in 2007, the new party leader who will lead the socialists (PSOE) at March 2012 election is an older man. The voters, however, want a new party not a new leader.
The same is true of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), whose leader Manuel Rajoy was slotted in to replace José Maria Aznar, just before the PP lost power in March 2004. Both main parties are losing members. None has much credibility. So far, Spain has not developed a major strand of xenophobic anti-immigration, anti-Muslim politics in the style of its northern neighbours. But this may be a matter of time as Spain actually has more incomers – including 900,000 Brits – living in the country as a proportion of the indigenous population than any of its northern neighbours.
Spain has been harder hit by the crisis than any other major EU nation. A rough comparison would be with Ireland except that Spain is ten times Ireland’s size. As in Ireland, Spain allowed a property bubble to develop taking advantage of the low Euro interest rate to build, build, build, speculate, speculate, speculate. It was not the European Central Bank’s interest rate policy – which is the same as the US Fed or our Bank of England – but the failure to place some limit on mortgage issuing as is common in many northern EU member states (except Britain) that led to disaster. Spain’s main banks, including the UK high street Santander, were well supervised. But the regional or city-based savings banks were put under political control and used to finance projects aimed at promoting the profile of local politicians – of the right as much as of the left.
It is an iron lesson that the socialists fail to learn again and again. The left cannot escape certain iron rules of prudent economic management – those applied by Brown in his early period as chancellor before public spending slipped out of control after the Iraq invasion and its political aftermath. It is easier in theory than political practice to apply economic rigour. Gerhard Schröder did after 2000 and the German economy is much healthier today than other EU member states. But Schröder was booted out of office so why should Zapatero (or Brown) follow an economic policy that seemed to guarantee an early exit to political oblivion? Better to spend and see.
But time usually runs out once borrowing runs away. Zapatero never explained in full detail the extent of the crisis. The 15M blames the political class. But was there no intellectual or university professor – who have unlimited access to newspaper comment pages – who was ready to tell the truth that major segments of the Spanish economy were living on tick, and it could not go on? The 15M movement opens the door to a victory for the right in Spain. When the PP arrives with an aggressive anti-social agenda, 15M will find out and start wringing their hands. But it will be too late.
In the Guardian this week, Policy Network’s Patrick Diamond and Olaf Cramme, two of the best thinkers on European social democray, say the Third Way is dead and argue it is a forlorn hope that ‘merely restating the case for traditional state action will revive support for centre-left parties’. Instead, they call for first ‘a strategy for regulating financial markets; second, an industrial modernisation plan that would rebalance our economies away from a reliance on financial services; and finally, a strategy for reforming the tax system, one which would clamp down on tax evasion and fraud while restoring the progressivity of tax, while using redistribution to tackle inequalities.’ Offhand it is hard to imagine more traditional state action than that required to implement their programme. But whenever it, or something like it, has been offered by European left parties it has been rejected by voters.
Spain’s socialists may also have the ultimate killer for successful politics – a sense of mission accomplished. The Gonzalez (1982-1996) and Zapatero years (2004-2011) have seen the biggest modernisation of Spain since the 16th century. Social rights for women, gays, and trade unions were combined with a modernisation of the bureaucracy, devolution, a coherent energy policy, and a skilful use of EU funds to promote infrastructure. Spanish films, football, architecture, journalism, city design, museums, art galleries became as good, if not better, as anywhere else in Europe. Secularism replaced religion and Spain became a dynamic force for modernisation in Latin America.
But in Spanish, as in other politics, no good social democratic deed goes unpunished. Voters pocketed the movida project of González, took for granted entry into the EU and Nato, and welcomed the soft feminism, greenery, anti-Bushism, and cultural openings of Zapatero. The González socialists placed their surf board on the new globalisation waves of the 1980s and rode them brilliantly. They also nailed their colours to the EU mast with Spain being the only country to ratify the EU constitution in 2005 just before it was sunk by the French and the Dutch. Spain’s growing unhappiness in the first decade of the 21st century mirrors almost precisely the loss of confidence in the European project. One of Spain’s shrewdest political commentators, José Ignacio Torreblanca, has just written a brilliant essay for El Pais (now available on Open Democracy), on the fault line and fractures in Europe. Its acuity is matched by its pessimism as Torreblanca sees only an EU condemned to decline and fragmentation thanks to lack of leadership or a complacent belief that reforms should always be put off. Richard Youngs at the Madrid-based Fride institute has also written a sharp indictment (Europe’s Decline and Fall. The struggle against global irrelevance. Profile Books) about the loss of energy in the European project which damages a Spain utterly identified, almost fused with, the EU.
Also where the Spanish Socialists remained in unchallenged control as in Andalusia (think the North East or Liverpool when under Labour hegemony) they got cosy and comfortable. Like Our Friends in the North, the PSOE gave into clannish family local politics which has an unhealthy dominance in Spanish social democracy. This led, by default, to deals and low-level corruption, especially in planning and construction. The education system focuses on learning information and fact rather than teaching how to question. Even the much-vaunted windmill revolution putting up clanking metal structures in areas of natural beauty has more to do with socialist mayors being paid off by contractors getting bucks from the EU to put windmills up without any proper studies on impact being done. After 2004, Spain withdrew from Iraq but has had little coherent international policy since. Spain was out of touch with the Mahgreb revolution and lined up with Moscow against the rest of the EU and democratic world when it refused to recognise Kosovo and thus help bring an end to the Western Balkans imbroglio.
Spain remains one of the great European nations and incomparably one of the great world civilisations. For much of the 20th century until Franco died it was an unhappy country. Its great burst of modernisation and renewal between 1978 and 2008 lasted 30 years. Spanish socialists – having been denied a place in Spanish politics for decades – contributed enormously to that renewal. But now the wine-skin of the left is empty. And there is no-one writing, thinking, or organising in Spain who looks able to fill it up again.
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