Progress | Centre-left Labour politics
Spain's new progressive leader Pedro Sanchez on the campaign trail

Pragmatic and progressive: Spain’s new leader

After years of conservative rule, Pedro Sánchez and his socialist party are finally rebuilding Spain’s ‘moral authority’, writes Callum Tipple

During my time working and living in Spain, I heard the same expression uttered almost daily by office-workers, bar staff, and passers-by alike: ‘celos y envidia quitan al hombre vida’. Though more idiomatic in its original, it translates as ‘jealousy and envy strip a man of his life’. Waking up on the morning of the 9th June 2017, Pedro Sánchez would have had good reason to envy Jeremy Corbyn.

Despite falling short of a majority, Corbyn had exceeded all expectations for the general election, debilitating Theresa May’s position in the commons and securing 40 per cent of the popular vote in the process. Sánchez and the socialist party (PSOE) possessed fewer seats in congress than they had ever held since the transition to democracy; the progressive vote was splintered by the radical left-wing party Podemos, and Sánchez himself had only just been re-elected as leader, having been forced out after the previous election.

Just over one year on, and Corbyn’s Labour party is engulfed in internal strife, with divides over antisemitism and Brexit driving a wedge between the leadership and the parliamentary Labour party, and Labour still sitting four percentage points below the Conservatives in the polls. Meanwhile, Pedro Sánchez has just completed his first 100 days as prime minister of Spain.

The litmus test was this: could Sánchez secure the passage of progressive bills through parliament and maintain social democratic values in a southern Europe increasingly dragged to the eurosceptic right?

A successful no-confidence motion filed by the PSOE which detailed alleged corruption in the ruling People’s party (PP) led to the overthrow of their leader Mariano Rajoy on the May 31 2018, with a coalition of left-leaning and nationalist parties within congress ensuring Sánchez’s progress to the highest office, and the keys to La Moncloa.

Significant legislative moves were always unlikely in the first months of the Sánchez administration: not only is there a pending question over democratic legitimacy without a new general election, but the PSOE lack the numbers in congress to secure controversial and extensive reform on areas from education to labour. However, the litmus test was this: could Sánchez secure the passage of progressive bills through parliament and maintain social democratic values in a southern Europe increasingly dragged to the eurosceptic right?

Not only does this mark a step forward for Spanish workers in industries hit hard by the crisis, but it manifests a willingness to compromise and work within the political system in order to protect the interests of working people

Sanchez’s hands are bound by the PP’s spending plans for 2019 and he must wait to see whether a more progressive budget can be passed through congress in the future. The PSOE have had to deal with the largest public debt in the country’s history, due to stand at 20 per cent of GDP in 2019, with the European Central Bank due to stop purchasing Spanish debt. However, strong economic growth has been maintained in the early months of the new administration, fuelled by investment in infrastructure and greater political stability. This should offer the new leader economic flexibility in the coming months to reduce public expenditure without embarking on a dangerous austerity programme reminiscent of his predecessor.

Sánchez has demonstrated similarly pragmatic yet progressive thinking on labour market reform. Aware that he lacks a parliamentary majority for a wide-scale overhaul of the repressive 2012 trade union laws, the socialist leader has instead opted for a targeted attempt to reinstate the validity of sectoral collective agreements. Not only does this mark a step forward for Spanish workers in industries hit hard by the crisis, but it manifests a willingness to compromise and work within the political system in order to protect the interests of working people.

The prime minister has adopted a similarly pragmatic approach on the Catalan issue, placing the interests of ordinary people above those of political factions and working with the Catalan president Quim Torra to develop constructive solutions to resolve tensions. Sánchez’s offer of greater devolution embodied in a new autonomy statute is intended to redress the ill-will provoked by the rejection of such a statute by the courts in 2011. His message of investment and devolution to solve the issues that fuel the fire of nationalism provides a model for social democracies across Europe, and despite conservative assurances of its ultimate futility, it must be given a chance to succeed.

No greater symbol of moral authority in Europe could be transmitted than Spain’s acceptance of the Aquarius refugee ship

However, it is in the field of social issues that the prime minister has achieved his greatest triumphs. His cabinet features the highest female representation of any country in the world; reforms to laws on gender violence and child violence (including a move towards presumptive truth) have enshrined protections for vulnerable victims, and the dictatorial legacy of Franco has been weakened through the passage of a law to exhume his remains from a glorifying and still-worshipped tomb in the Valley of the Fallen.

No greater symbol of moral authority in Europe could be transmitted than Spain’s acceptance of the Aquarius refugee ship, days after Salvini and the far-right Italian administration had denied it entry. If a country is to be judged by its tolerance, decency and respect in times of political difficulty, Sánchez’s Spain merits universal commendation.

Lamentably few centre-left leaders occupy the highest office of their land in member states across Europe. Sánchez himself is constrained by political exigencies and will eventually have to seek an electoral mandate in order to continue to implement progressive reform. Nonetheless, an ambitious programme of social reform coupled with inventive solutions to pressing regional and economic problems shows the power of pragmatic social democracy in stemming Europe’s dangerous lurch to the right.

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Callum Tipple is a writer for Progress. He tweets @Callum_Tipple

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Photo: psoe extremadura / Wikimedia Commons

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