A New Circle Politics


Ahead of a meeting of Podemos’ MEPs, at IIRE in Amsterdam Jack Ferguson looks at the Podemos phenomenon.

In the European elections earlier this year, the main story that you heard in a lot of Europe was the rise of the racist right. But we’ve heard less about some of the more interesting left wing success stories coming out of Southern Europe.

In Greece, the radical left party Syriza triumphed, clearly taking first place. They immediately declared that the conservative Greek government had no mandate to continue the austerity programme that is tearing Greek society apart.

In the Spanish state, the left also was the main important new factor. Spain has, since the end of the dictatorship of Franco in the 70s, been a two party system, dominated by the right-wing People’s Party (PP) and the PSOE – Spain’s equivalent of Labour. They came first and second in the elections, but together they received less than 50% of the vote, which is unprecedented. Spain’s working class have grown tired of their version of the Labour party as well, after in power it abandoned its principles to implement EU mandated austerity. This left room for a wide assortment of smaller parties to gain seats, and the third and fourth places were taken by parties with radical left wing agendas for transforming society.

Third place went to the Plural Left, a diverse coalition of socialists, Greens, and parties of the regions and nations within the Spanish state, like Galicia. The major partner of the coalition was Spain’s traditional party that is to the left of the PSOE, the United Left (IU). But perhaps even more interesting was the dramatic success of a brand new party which was created this year: Podemos (‘We Can’ in Spanish), which won 1.25 million vote, and 5 seats.

The new party emerged out of the 15M/indignados movement, which saw city squares all over Spain occupied and turned into mass democratic assemblies by citizens outraged at the extreme austerity punishment. Over half the country’s young people put are out of work, and evictions are at an all time high. Protests have been met with a brutal legal crackdown by a state that just spent €1 billion on riot gear. There’s much of the Spanish deep state, in the police and the military, that has changed little since the end of the fascist dictatorship.

One group within this movement felt that its next stage needed to be standing in elections, and that citizens must attempt to take political power. Issuing the manifesto ‘Making a Move‘, they called for:

“a candidacy that offers itself to the wave of popular indignation that astounded the world. We are glad to see the advance of the forces of the left, but we are conscious of the need to do something more in order to set in gear the changes we need. It is a time for courage and for not allowing the closure of the window of opportunity that the commitment of so many good people has opened. We need a candidacy of unity and of rupture, led by people who express new ways of relating to politics.”

Over the intervening months, Podemos have attempted to find these new ways by holding open primaries to select their candidates list, in which they invited anyone, party member or not, to vote. Over 33, 000 people took part in the selection, leading to a wide range being chosen, including many unemployed people.

They have opened up all their internal processes to the public, publishing their accounts, and making it possible to vote on candidates and the party’s programme online, for those that can’t get to meetings for whatever reason. They took laptops into the streets to allow people to contribute, and their 35 page election manifesto was a collectively drafted document.

It included demands for an independent citizen’s audit of Spain’s debts, so that the people could decide whether and which parts to keep paying; both a higher minimum wage and a universal basic income; taking key industries into public ownership; implementing participatory democracy; and ending the brutal border regime that has seen so many migrants killed on Spain’s southern coasts.

They also insist that the nations within the Spanish state (most notably the Basque country and Catalonia) are guaranteed the right to self determination and a free vote on their future. This stands in stark contrast to the government in Madrid, which has branded Catalonia’s desire for an independence referendum illegal.

Last weekend I attended an important discussion here in Amsterdam with one of the Podemos candidates who was elected to Brussels, chemist Pablo Echenique. I was eager to learn more of the unique process and methods used by the Podemos organisers, to see what lessons we can apply in other countries, not least Scotland.

Pablo’s story is one that illustrates the rapid rise of Podemos, and how it has managed to involve so many people in politics for the first time:

“My political trajectory is very short. Last December I was a full time scientist, and when I say full time I mean full time; when you are a scientist you not only work Saturdays and Sundays, but also some times in your sleep. Then in January, I heard about Podemos, and I thought ‘That’s a Good Idea,’ so I became involved. Now I am a Member of the European Parliament.

It’s shameful that here, in rich Europe, there are people who need to look for food in the garbage. People evicted from their homes. This is shameful and unnecessary. We can and must do better.”

He spoke of how Podemos began “basically with a YouTube video”. A small founding group of left wing academics hired a theatre, announced their proposal for a new party, and asked for 50,000 signatures over two weeks, to see if people supported the idea. They hit this target the same day.

The initial supporters were asked to form local groups, which are called ‘Circles’. Over 1000 of these exist now in communities all over the Spanish state, and beyond – the Circle based in the Netherlands had organised the event we were attending. There has also been a first meeting for Podemos in London.

One of the first acts of the local circles was to reach out to their own communities. Podemos members across the country hand delivered letters to neighbour’s doors, which Pablo quoted from:

“This letter has not come to you by mail, because to mail every person in Spain costs €2 million. Ask the parties who did mail you where they get their money from. Our accounts are all published online and are open to anyone. If you’re reading this it’s because someone who lives near you wants to change things for real.”

In the days running up to the vote they were inundated with new members and circles forming, as the news of the new party spread. The activists suspect that if the election had been held one week later, they would have had an even more impressive result. Certainly since the elections they have rocketed up the opinion polls, and are currently hovering around the 20% mark, which makes it either the number 2 or number 3 party in the polls, depending on where you place the PSOE. If they can find a way to combine forces with the United Left, then there is a serious possibility of a radical Spanish government in power at the end of next year.

New MEP Pablo exuded confidence about the sudden rise of his new party:

“What will our problems be when we win the election? I think we will win. What can we do about that? We won’t be able to do anything but win. We will have to be responsible and put in place a programme that will improve people’s lives. We have strong restrictions now, our political class are cowards. When they are told what to do, they capitulate. We will not, we will be brave.”

I was particularly interested in how Podemos integrates the use of the internet with its local Circles, and how decisions are taken. I asked Pablo if the party is using existing platforms or developing their own tools. For now, they are small and underfunded, and so use websites like Reddit to post policy and organisational proposals, which users at reddit.com/r/podemos/ can then vote to the top. Online voting is the primary means of decision making, but the full mechanics of how the party should work internally are being worked out right now, with proposals circulating and being amended for the founding congress.

Pablo described a tool that they were working on implementing, that would allow his constituents to reach him quickly via a phone app. He could also use it to consult thousands of people instantly. As he put it, “I can ask, ‘What do you want me to ask Juncker [the President of the European Commission] right now?’ and within two minutes I will have thousands of answers. The app can work out quickly which are the most supported.”

Things, of course, are not perfect with these methods which they are experimenting with. Although there are dozens of proposals on how to organise the party internally, the prominent spokespeople such as Iglesias’ proposals are the ones that receive the most coverage in the mainstream media, and so can reach out beyond the activists engaged online. Pablo acknowledged the need to create new software and technical tools, adding “I’m confident we will, we just don’t have the resources yet.” He acknowledged that drafting documents collectively was “a tough technical problem, and I don’t think we’ve got it right yet. How do you ensure everyone is able to participate, but not in a destructive way?”

Podemos has been accused of “populism”, both by the parties it is swiftly replacing, but also by some sections of the left that see its language of “the people” vs. “the elite” as a retreat from class. They carefully avoid the use of traditional Marxist phraseology and socialist buzzwords. Marketing and carefully using the right language, tweaking the message, has been a hallmark of the party’s success. It’s what many activists have been arguing for a long time: that an understanding of how conventional political parties work, and the psychological insights of marketing, could be put to much better use in movement building.

Pablo says he doesn’t see the party as comparable with many other parties of the left, simply because of its radically new methods of openness. He argues:

“I don’t see parties in Europe that are methodologically the same. In the case of the problem, there are many that see it. These parties are our natural allies. We discuss with them, but maybe by looking at Podemos, they will change their ways. If they won’t maybe people should start a Podemos like initiative in their countries.”

There is of course a risk with having such a popular and charismatic figurehead, of centralising far too much power and influence in that individual. However, Podemos imposes term limits on all its representatives, and makes them sign a strict ethical pledge. Pablo argued that

“Apart from being bottom up, we have powerful faces in the media. We don’t see them as concentrations of power, we see them as a tool. Pablo [Iglesias] says he is a tool, and that it is a sign of our weakness that we have to rely on such people in the media. We hope to grow stronger as a movement so don’t need as much figureheads.”

This ability to reach out and speak to people via the mainstream media however has been vital to the party’s electoral rise. Iglesias himself certainly has a rather different style from the bombastic cult leaders like Tommy Sheridan or George Galloway we’re used to in the UK. As Pablo describes it:

“We don’t treat people as under-aged. We appeal to their intelligence. The success of Pablo [Iglesias] is amazing, and what is most amazing is that he speaks quietly, with arguments, and the truth. Not simple sentences and easy phrases. He speaks to the complexity of people’s minds. People were waiting for that. They are not stupid. Politicians treated them as stupid. They have great intelligence, especially as part of their daily lives, their jobs, families neighbourhoods. How do we gather this intelligence? We combine face to face meetings with new technological tools that were not available before.”

Another problem Pablo freely acknowledged was that the class base of the party itself was stronger among the middle class than workers, and that this must change “otherwise we will not do things right.” Although, as noted, there were unemployed people, librarians and firefighters among Podemos’ candidates, there were also a lot of academics.

It’s obvious that Podemos hasn’t magically solved all the difficult problems of how to organise, and break the neoliberal hegemony, overnight. But there are surely key lessons that perhaps should have been integrated now, about using clear language that people understand, and about using online participation to ensure that people who work, have families or many other reasons why they can’t attend a meeting twice a month. The radical openness of the party, and its limitations its places on its representatives, may well help prevent the pitfalls of power. We’ll have to wait and see.

For a party that has yet to celebrate its first birthday though, it’s fair to say they’re doing not bad. Crucial decisions will have to be made in coming weeks on formalising the structure of the party, as well as if and how it can unite with the Plural Left coalition. But the prize, a radical anti-austerity left wing government at the heart of the EU, is well worth fighting for. Podemos intend to “to take every piece of power we can at every level we can, in politics, in media, in all the insitutions. If we leave ground our enemies will grab it – that’s how they work.”

Pablo adds:

“Now we are discussing franticly. We are running very fast. We plan to keep running fast. Because we have punched these guys in the stomach, and they are out of breath. We will not let them recover their breath. We will keep punching.”

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  1. Stuart Murray says:

    I’ll probably be chastised for saying it, but here’s what I feel – we can form alliances, call another referendum, declare independence or do whatever we like. But Westminster is simply not going to let go of Scotland whilst there are massive oil and gas reserves in Scottish waters. No matter what. Should it stop us? No. But it doesn’t alter the fact that they’re not going to ‘let us’ go. We believe in democracy. Does British establishment? No, they couldn’t care less about it. There’s the deal.

    1. Marian says:

      We could make it very difficult for Westminster if our Parliament at Holyrood holds and wins a referendum on Scotland taking all powers except for Foreign Affairs and Defence.

      But we could make Scotland ungovernable by Westminster if the majority of our MP’s, MSP’s, and MEP’s are all independence supporters.

  2. Alex Buchan says:

    “We don’t treat people as under-aged. We appeal to their intelligence. The success of Pablo [Iglesias] is amazing, and what is most amazing is that he speaks quietly, with arguments, and the truth. Not simple sentences and easy phrases. He speaks to the complexity of people’s minds. People were waiting for that. They are not stupid. Politicians treated them as stupid. They have great intelligence, especially as part of their daily lives, their jobs, families neighbourhoods. How do we gather this intelligence? We combine face to face meetings with new technological tools that were not available before.”

    This reminded me of what was most transformational for me about the referendum campaign, attending meetings, or watching clips of meetings, where people spoke quiet truths that moved people’s opinions in a way that political speeches never do. There are lots of ideas here that can be used by the indy campaign groups to involve a wider group of people that currently turn up for meetings.

    1. Sean McNulty says:

      Great post.

      “Podemos imposes term limits on all its representatives”

      So important. Rotation of posts at all levels prevents them from becoming just another top-down organisation.

      Political representation is too important to remain just another *career option*, which is the source of most corruption and cowardice. A few years max, do whatever good you can, and then you’re out, ta very much.

  3. brobof says:

    In the Egyptian 2011 revolution and the online portion of the UK Occupy movement, we used Google Moderator to great effect to post, vote and refine ideas. Followed by a manifesto constructed and debated using an internal wiki.
    And it’s still operational.
    and here’s one of mine (happy days)

  4. Crubag says:

    Reading up on what they’ve done, they seem to be a less successful version of Five Star (20% of the vote, 17 MEPs). Local conditions are going to be different, but I think Five Star might have achieved greater appeal through their emphasis on direct democracy.

    1. Dan says:

      Yes, that was what I was wondering. The article was fantastic — it’s really important for Scotland to learn lessons from the European experience rather than trying to invent everything from scratch — but I did wonder whether the creation of an App to canvas opinion for an elected representative was somewhat besides the point.

      Surely we should be looking at an App for use in direct democracy. “Do you think Scotland should abandon European human rights laws?” Yes or no. You could start doing this now, acting as if Scotland already had independence.

      Some of the old objections to direct democracy are no longer valid. It’s now technologically and practically easier to hold plebiscites on issues of practical importance. Representative democracy is obviously one more step removed from true enfranchisement, and representatives are easily co-opted by the powerful. Not everything can be done by referendums, but if our prime objective is to return power to people and to remove it from elected representatives, then direct democracy should be a key aim.

      1. Stuart Murray says:

        Good points, Dan. But what/who would the security services find it easier to infiltrate – an electronic application or the morality of an Alex Salmond?

      2. Iain Hill says:

        Agree completely. Let’s have the app. It would give people in Scotland a strong voice in dialogue with WM, to fill the gap which Labour has left in moving towards austerity, compliance and personal careerism.

    2. Alex Buchan says:

      I understand that 5 Star have aligned themselves in the European Parliament with UKIP and other right wing anti-immigration parties. Presumably this is the opposite end of the spectrum from PODEMOS

    3. I think that the 5 Star Movement is much more politically ambiguous – a lot of their programme is progressive, but they also as others point out have allied with the right in the parliament, as well as Beppe Grillo and others within it saying some really unpleasant sexist things. I think and hope Podemos is significantly different from them. Also, I’m not sure if ultimately they will be less successful, as I say in the article Podemos poll ratings just now are extraordinary.

  5. Stuart Murray says:

    On the excellent article, I wasn’t surprised to read of Iglesias’ delivery style. The shouting, the straining neck muscles, the slogans and the boiling rage of our Left leaders are something only seen in black & white films in the rest of Europe. As much as Tommy can inspire and give a rousing speech, there were times in his Hope Over Fear tour when he looked ready to jump down off the stage and strangle everyone in the audience. Even for those who understand the style and the rhetoric, it can be a teeny bit intimidating; I can imagine that it horrifies many of the elderly. Why do we need that style, I wonder?

    For me, the Left has failed on the PR side of things for decades, and learns nothing from its mistakes. Why, for example, do we on the Left all wear the same left-wing uniform – typically, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, or some other dark, dull combination? We might know why, but do those who are not interested in politics understand it? When people watch political interviews on tv, there are many who pay far more attention to what they see than what they hear. And a dark outfit that looks as if it’s aimed at the rejection of society does nothing to attract new followers. It only creates suspicion. If two people are debating, one with a shirt and tie on, the other a black t-shirt, how many of the more (c)onservative voters (i.e. those in middle or old age) – who might have no major interest in politics – end up supporting the person in the black t-shirt? I’d guess none. Very often it’s not because his/her message is wrong, but the image and delivery is all wrong. It looks threatening, angry, like there may be a ‘day of reckoning’ coming for us all. Put an ear-ring in the t-shirt wearer’s ear (or, By Joe, his/her nose), and most of those voters get the feeling they’re looking at someone from a satanic cult. They’ve stopped listening before the t-shirt wearer has spoken a word. We need to be smarter than this, surely?

    The hand of American PR (I’m certainly not praising it) was obvious in the orchestration of the Maidan protests in Kiev. When the masses rallied in their tens of thousands in the square to listen to speeches each evening, the world’s media were lined up along the front of the stage – and guess which group of people occupied the first 20 or 30 rows at the front of the crowd? Was it baying mobs of masked hooligans? Was it students dressed as clowns, beating drums and waving peace flags? No. It was the elderly. Hundreds upon hundreds of pensioners, all at the front. What did that achieve? It achieved empathy for the Ukrainian cause all around the world, as people watched their news channels. Call it what you will. Perhaps it just happened that way. I very much doubt it. It was brilliantly organised to give maximum effect. That’s the type of thing we need to learn. When tv crews attend protests in the UK, they often seek out the most “threatening” (to conservative eyes) protestors – people screaming for revolution, people dressed as clowns, people who look like a “bunch of hippies” etc. That plays well to the 6 o’clock news audience, and does extreme damage to the Left, in my humble opinion. We have to look less threatening, less “extreme”, if we’re to win over the voters who wouldn’t in a million years vote for big change.

    I also think rallies should be timed better – rather plucking a date out of thin air (or one suggested by the authorities) to hold a rally, why not try to have it coincide with a forthcoming government announcement. If we know the date the Budget is announced or the day the ‘devo-max’ aggreement is to be announced, a rally should be timed to happen that day/or the following day, since we know bad news is going to be released at these times by Westminster. The PR war. Calling a rally for a date that has no link with Westminster announcements/events is a missed opportunity. It may be a rally, a very good rally, but the PR-effect is mimimised because timing wasn’t used to maximise the effect.

  6. brobof says:

    Essential viewing http://occupylondon.org.uk/occupy-democracy-videos/
    Perhaps a similar demonstration in Glasgow & Edinburgh #fracking #occupyDemocracy
    October 17-26th

  7. Stuart Murray says:

    Re the article again, very interesting to read of Podemos’ use of language. The Yes campaign was awash at times with words/phrases like ‘working-class’, ‘nationalisation’ and ‘socialism’, as if Thatcher had never existed. The one thing she and her reign succeeded in doing was in dirtying these words in the nation’s consciousness. When the average person on the street hears the word ‘nationalisation’, I’m sure it produces a negative, subconscious reaction in many. But if we say that that an oil & gas company should be set up that ‘belongs to the people’, rather than ‘nationalised’, the idea would probably get more support. Many on the Left already use the phrase ‘working people’ rather than ‘working-class’ people; much more inclusive and untainted I think.

    1. kate says:

      maybe best to use the old traditions as well as create new language.

      thatcher aimed to make certain words and ideas unusable and even unthinkable – completely taboo except as humour. that taboo language still needs to be contested on the basis of its content over style. any language used by the left will be targeted and made disreputable, then designated as beyond the pale, if it is given up to the right without contest.

      also the left uses overtly socialist political language in scotland because they still can !
      that is rare
      thatcher and neo liberalism never had the legitimacy in scotland it had in england and most of UKs former colonies, which is a big part of scotland’s greater belief in itself as a society,not just an economy…

      You couldn’t make a convincing version of Cassette Boy’s David Cameron Rap using Salmond’s speeches.

      there were few countries of scotland’s size with the SSP’s number of MPs in the last decade, people who actually were elected as socialists -in the Scottish sense, not the French, etc. Much strength is in various radical traditions, but at the same time i agree presentation and use of words are important.

      It is possible old school impassioned delivery of speeches could scare some people, possibly pensioners, but at the same i am sure Sheridan could easily develop different styles to suit particular audiences. Fireside chats at retirement homes..I don’t think Sheridan’s speeches necessarily treat the listener as stupid but it could seem that way to a more academic audience. I think there are class issues involved in what seems an informed or well argued speech. A bigger problem there seems his relationship with the scottish left, and particularly feminists. However there are a lot of men who speak more softly and politely who also don’t really think much of women.

  8. Dan says:

    Re. My suggestion above, what about crowdfunding the development of an app called ‘Scottish Direct Democracy’ or something? Or just building it anyway on one of those app developer tools?

    It could just ask a simple question of direct relevance to Scottish people every week, with the results fed through to decision-makers and/or political parties? Obviously it would be subject to selection bias so wouldn’t have scientific credibility as a poll but it might be an exercise in popular democracy if leaders actually paid attention to it. And it would build on the re-politicisation of people following the indyref. Bella Caledonia/ Jack Ferguson do you have thoughts on this? Or would it just be the same as those polls they run on newspapers or websites from time to time?

  9. Frank says:

    Clearly this article doesn’t give a deep inside of Spain, with statements like naming as brutal legal crackdown the answer to a demonstration with de motto “rodea el congreso” (let’s surround the congress). I do not want people pressing the parliamentarians in this way. My wife was there and things were not like the article suggests.
    Or mentioning a spending of €1 billion on riot gear, which is no where in the Spanish news. Or claiming that were hardly changes in the police and the military, since the end of the fascist dictatorship. Which is evidently untrue.
    Regarding Parliament representativeness, what the article suggest is tendentious. (http://www.infoelectoral.interior.es/min/home.html)
    2011 Parliament elections: PP+PSOE 18 million votes out of 24 million valid votes; that’s 75% of the votes. European elections 2014, it’s true PP+PSOE got just 50% of the valid votes (7,85 million out of 15.7 million) with a very high abstention. But there are other parties, traditional, the new Podemos, etc.. In terms of left/right the European elections were just 50% each, but with a substantial abstention. What I mean is there are much more people that those who are active in the social webs. And, unfortunately they made PP to win. That’s the real life.
    “Podemos” is a very good new; it’s the political answer to 15M movement. If you are thinking of learning something from its success, take into account that many of its leaders are academics, with sociological expertise (http://www.elconfidencial.com/espana/2014-09-28/quien-es-quien-en-podemos-nombres-hitos-y-principales-claves_216776/) . And this, in my opinion, is one of its weaknesses: in some way it’s a sociological product; it was needed and someone knows how to do it. We’ll see. So far it’s an upheaval and may force IU and PSOE to move more to the left. Promises are free.

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