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State of the Left - Spain

Much ado about something

Luis Fernando Medina Sierra - 09 March 2016

Spain’s agonising wait for a new government presents an opportunity for the left to reflect on deeper tensions

Sometimes watching paint dry can be a fruitful exercise. It may get you to wonder what the wall was made of in the first place. It has already been more than two months since Spain had its general election and still there is no end in sight for the negotiations to form a new government. In fact, there is a high likelihood that new elections (probably as early as June) will be necessary. Days turn into weeks, investiture votes in parliament come and go, constitutional deadlines approach, all of this while the deeper, devilishly difficult electoral arithmetic remains unchanged. The fact remains that, even if the aggregate vote share of the centre-left parties in Spain was larger than that of the center-right (combined, PSOE, Podemos and IU obtained 11.6m votes against the 10.6m of PP and Ciudadanos), a coalition of PSOE, Podemos and IU is still unlikely. So much so that lately the PSOE, at this point the rightful formateur, has partnered up with the other emerging party, Ciudadanos, in spite of the latter having positioned itself as a “new and improved” center-right party.

Amid the inevitable tensions, it is easy to understand why the left is falling into mutual recriminations, with all the parties accusing the other ones of bad faith, betrayal and self-aggrandising behavior… all the while reaching out in the hope of an agreement. But probably, beyond the specific characteristics of the parties involved, and the clashing personalities, there is a deeper issue tearing the left apart not just in Spain but in other countries – an issue that it might be advisable to confront head on.

Consider, for instance, one of the main sticking points: labour market reform (the other major one being the issue of Catalonia). The Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) is willing to adopt the notions of labour market flexibility put forward by Ciudadanos. There is, certainly, much to criticise about the current state of the Spanish labour markets. They create a highly dual structure in which ‘insiders’ enjoy levels of job security that the rest can only dream of. From an egalitarian perspective, any reform aimed at tearing down the wall between insiders and outsiders should be considered a progressive step. Yet, Podemos and IU loudly denounce the current attempt at introducing a more flexible type of contract that might reduce the job security of more senior employers while improving that of the more junior ones.

The participants in the debate have an interest in claiming that the other side is wrongheaded or dishonest, but maybe there is a more profound disagreement about exactly how to deal with the inequalities in the labour market, and even more, what the role is of the labour market itself. If you believe that the private sector, especially the highly financialised and globalised corporations of modern capitalism, ought to be the hegemonic power in the allocation of human and physical resources, with the state playing the role of a regulator and corrector of some excesses and negative side-effects, then you are likely to embrace the idea of labour market flexibility while hoping that the social safety net can redress whatever imbalances it produces. If, instead, you believe that corporate power itself must be challenged even within the firm (even while acknowledging the need for a market economy) then you may prefer an approach that preserves whatever gains social actors such as unions have obtained in the past (such as job security), in the hope of extending those gains to the rest of the population later. In this case, the state is not just a regulator hovering over the market economy, but rather the main locus of contestation between labour and capital.

This might explain what might at first glance seem an anomaly: Podemos’s electoral base is younger than that of PSOE and with fewer links to the historical unions. If all that mattered was the voters’ ostensible economic self-interest, probably Podemos could be more supportive of the reform being floated. But parties are more than mere demographic slices; they develop and put forward outlooks of society and in the case of Podemos, at least to the extent to which anything definitive can be said of such an inchoate group, it has risen in rejection of the conventional social democratic consensus.

At this point it would be foolhardy to hazard a guess about the make-up of the next government. But the results of the last election suggest that both new parties, Ciudadanos and Podemos, have enough of a presence to remain relevant throughout this cycle. But going forward they seem to face opposite challenges as regards their long-run prospects. Ciudadanos has not allowed much daylight between its economic positions and those of the conservative ruling People’s party, something that may make the necessary ‘product differentiation’ difficult. Instead, on the left side of the spectrum the gap is already there between the mainstream party and the upstart, something that poses an entirely different set of risks for both of them as they try to build, in the years to come, a coherent alternative to the current dominance of the right.

Luis Fernando Medina Sierra is an associate professor in the department of social sciences at the Charles III University of Madrid, and an associate researcher at the Fundación Alternativas

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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