Sí, Se Puede: What the Labour Party Can Learn from Podemos’ Populist Insurgency
Of all the anti-austerity movements that emerged in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis, none were perhaps more of unprecedented success than the left-populist party ‘Podemos’ in Spain. Born as the party-political successor to the so-called ‘Indignados’ of the 2011 ‘15M’ anti-corruption movements, the party grasped the anti-establishment political moment, propelling them to success in the 2014 European elections. Along with the new political force ‘Ciudadanos’, the hold of the establishment centre-right and centre-left parties over Spanish politics was broken in the 2015 general election. After fewer than 2 years of existence, Podemos came less than 2% of the vote share behind the traditional centre-left ‘Partido Socialista Obrero Español’ (PSOE). Subsequently, however, Podemos’ star seemed to fall just as rapidly as it had emerged. Mired by internal struggles, the crisis of Catalonia and the resurgence of PSOE after their historic 2015 defeat , the party now finds itself as the junior coalition partner with centre-left, receiving only 13% of the vote in the most recent general election. Even with Podemos’ decline, it is clear that Europe remains in its populist moment, with Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini remaining strong contenders to form the next governments in their respective countries and the success of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ ‘the people vs the elites’ Brexit message in the 2019 UK general election. Keir Starmer and the Labour Party must be prepared to meet the populist challenge. I suggest that the successes and failures of Podemos may be insightful in this regard.
A goal of Podemos from its inception was to move beyond the traditional symbols of 20th century socialism, and even attempt to transcend the left against right conception of politics. For Podemos, the main cleavage in political society was not the left against the right, or the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, but instead ‘la gente’ (the people) against la casta (the caste). Harnessing the anti-establishment fervour of the 15M protestors, many of whom were from middle-class backgrounds, allowed for the expansion of Podemos’ electoral appeal beyond the traditional constituents of the radical left. This type of inclusive populism, which harnesses the dissatisfaction of the electorate with those who lead them, but directs their anger away from migrants, or religious minorities, and instead towards economic and political elites, has the capability of breaking the right’s iron grip on the politics of passion.
In the UK, the Conservative parties’ use of populist rhetoric in the most recent general election was no doubt successful. But their underlying ideology continues to ensure they fall short of their promise to be the party of the people. The planned reversal to the increase in maximum allowance for Universal Creditand the national scandal surrounding the refusal to provide free school meals over the Christmas holidaysreveal the frailties of the Conservatives populist façade. If Labour can conjure an inclusive populist message, their own ‘gente’ against the Tories’ ‘casta’, Boris Johnson’s government may lose its monopoly on anti-establishment politics. Unfortunately, Keir Starmer is no populist firebrand, and may struggle to present such a message as the former director of public prosecutions. Yet, he has already been willing to put his anti-establishment credentials on show. His defence of the print workers at Wapping, representing the defendants of the McLibel trial and providing free legal advice to the poll tax protestors in the 1990sall demonstrate Starmer’s potential to meet the populist moment. In Podemos, he has a guide of how such rhetoric can be deployed.
However, with their successes, Podemos also bring the British left lessons to learn from their failures. Unfortunately, one of the main contributors to the decline in the parties’ popularity was largely beyond their control. The Catalonia independence referendum of 2017 and the subsequent clamp down on protestors shook Spanish politics to its core. The main division in society shifted, from ‘la gente’ and ‘la casta’, to Spanish nationalists against regional secessionists. In response to the crisis, Podemos held onto their democratic principles, advocating for a Catalonian independence referendum whilst still supporting the region remaining part of Spain. In a time of great polarisation, Podemos were left in political no-man’s land and paid the electoral costs. For those who campaigned for the Labour party in the 2019 general election, the story of an unsuccessful nuanced position on an issue of extreme political polarisation will sound eerily familiar. It will be vital for Keir Starmer, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and all the social inequalities it has revealed, to stay on this terrain, rather than being pulled by the government, back onto the issue of Brexit, something the Labour leader has already shown himself to be capable of doing. The COVID crisis has shifted the main division in British society to one of inequality, rather than one of Remainers against Brexiteers. To avoid a similar electoral fate to Podemos, the Labour party must keep it that way.
There are, however, political failings for which Podemos undoubtedly have some culpability for. Because of the parties’ explosion onto the political scene, the party attempted to construct what the former deputy leader Íñigo Errejón referred to as an “electoral war machine,” an attempt to take state power in one fell swoop. However, after their failure to form government in their first general election, the party was left top-heavy, with a recognisable and media-experienced leadership, but with limited power at the grassroots level. Originally a key component of Podemos’ party structure, the local círculos (circles) were side-lined in Podemos’ general election campaigns and under the subsequent Partido Popular (PP) government, the grassroots infrastructure remained impoverished. In contrast, one of Labour’s greatest assets since the Corbyn ascendency has been it’s mass membership, experiencing an influx of 325,000 new members in the first year of the Corbyn leadership.The parallel campaign of the 2017 election conducted by Momentum contributed significantly to Labour’s electoral success, particularly in university towns and cities which the official campaign had largely written off. Although there is no confirmation on current membership numbers, early indicators suggest members from the left of the party in particular could be leaving the part under Starmer’s leadership. Whilst we will have to await confirmation on the official numbers, it is essential that the leadership retain this membership over the course of the next 4 years rather than be seduced into the temptations of a media-driven campaign centred around the leadership, no doubt a tempting strategy with Starmer’s popularity with the public. However, if Labour’s 2024 ‘electoral war machine’ fails as Podemos’ did in 2016, the party will be left with little institutional, or grassroots power.
Unquestionably, the British left have much to admire from Podemos. A party which was able to transcend the traditional boundaries of the left and fall only inches short of electorally overtaking the Spanish establishment’s centre-left party after less than 2 years of existence has much to be commended for. However, key mistakes around poor grassroots organising and inability to react to changing political circumstances should act as a stark warning to the Labour party. Utilising a progressive populist rhetoric alongside a more sophisticated organisational approach may be a fruitful electoral strategy in the Starmer era. Perhaps the most salient reminder that Labour can take from Podemos, however, is what the left can achieve when it holds state power. As the junior coalition partner, Podemos has already pressured PSOE into establishing a basic income guaranteeand a commitment to increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for government spending during the COVID crisis. The priority of all Labour members is for the party to once again enter government to achieve this sort of agenda. If we want to win, learning from other radical parties across Europe could be key.
Tamames, J. (2020) For the People: Left-Populism in Spain and the US, London: Lawrence and Wishart
 Tamames, J. (2020) pp. 175
Tamames, J. (2020) pp. 191
Tamames, J. (2020) pp. 246