Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Letter From … Madrid

On 29 October, the Spanish parliament finally approved the investiture of Mariano Rajoy, the conservative leader, as prime minister for a second term – thus ending 11 months of caretaker government, after two consecutive elections in six months. Those elections confirmed the consolidation of two emerging parties, the populist-leftist Podemos and the liberal-centrist Ciudadanos. Both challenge the two main parties that have dominated Spanish politics for the last 35 years, the Socialist party and the conservative People’s party.

The electoral results left the PSOE in second place trailing the PP but holding the key to the formation of any government: allowing a new conservative government, trying to form a left-led alternative, or sending the country to a third election. Each option implied huge costs for the party, which was far from united on the direction to take. In the end, socialist parliamentarians had no choice but to abstain and allow Rajoy to form a government. It ended with the party ripped apart, its leadership deposed and its image seriously damaged.

The new term has just kicked off with a minority conservative government and a fragmented parliament, thus opening the floor for ‘variable geometry’ in terms of the various coalitions that can be formed to approve individual pieces of legislation, even against the ruling party. For socialists, however, the path ahead remains turbulent. A new PSOE secretary general will emerge from the upcoming congress with a daunting challenge to command leadership over the party, unite the various factions and regain credibility with an electorate that is abandoning it. In the last election, Labour’s sister party got the worst results in its recent history, but there is no indication where the floor lies. In fact, the latest polls put the PSOE in third place, behind Podemos.

In truth, many of the challenges that confront the Spanish Socialists are not different from those facing social democracy across Europe. What is different, is Podemos. A clear strategy is needed urgently. The new party represents a formidable opponent that, with a combination of populism and the mastering of social networks, has suddenly emerged attracting the vote of swathes of young people, urbanites and progressives disillusioned with the PSOE. Within the latter’s ranks divisions lie deep as to whether they should confront Podemos head-on as their full rivals, or treat them like potential allies, finding areas of convergence in the struggle against the real adversaries – rightwing parties and neoliberal ideology. The PSOE cannot try to beat Podemos by playing the populist card, as it has appeared to have done at times. But lessons can be learned from the ascent of the new party: a bottom-up organisation that connects with ordinary people, through simple but effective messages and an image of coherence and honesty. Ultimately, given the PP’s solid electoral floor of around 30 per cent of voters, the clearest way for the left to regain power is for the PSOE and Podemos to leave behind their mutual mistrusts and to join forces around a common and realistic progressive agenda that can galvanise the aspirations of a social majority into an instrument for social and economic transformation.

Which option the party takes and how and whom PSOE elects as its new leader will shape the future of the Spanish left for years to come.


Manuel de la Rocha Vázquez is an economist at Fundación Alternativas and former head of economic affairs for the PSOE. He tweets at @MdelaRochaV



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Manuel de la Rocha Vazquez


  • Tory-lite parties are being rejected across Europe. People want proper socialist parties which aren’t bankrolled by wealthy donors.

  • Podemos has grown because of its ‘popular’ and ‘socialist’ appeal even though some aspects seem difficult to realise at this time. But it has also grown because of the complete disenchantment with social democracy which has now become Conservatives with a touch of tolerance, both in their liberal personal style but also because of their preference unprotected free markets and their recognition of the benefits of the acquisition of huge wealth through the dominance of the multilateral corporations.

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