Opinion: Miriam Gonzalez Durantez drops a few truth bombs on political parties

I’m currently studying abroad in Salamanca, where, as in the rest of the country, there are municipal elections on 24th May. (Yes, polling day is on a Sunday.) My bedroom floor is covered in a variety of different party propaganda (yes, that is the word they use in Spain for it) that I’ve gathered for academic reasons, obviously.

So, I was really excited to read Miriam’s article in El País recently. It most certainly did not disappoint – if you want a lesson in how to drop truth bombs on political parties, look no further.

Just to give a little bit of context – the Partido Popular is currently governing. It’s got “Working, Making, Growing” posters up around half the city, shouting from the rooftops about its economic success. Miriam notes that although progress has been made, it’s rather odd to be making that a central campaign plank while overall unemployment rests around 20% and youth unemployment around 50%.

She also attacks them for their failure to confront the ‘crisis of values’ facing the Spanish political system, talking of a ‘radical disconnect between the political class and citizens.’ She refers to Chris Huhne briefly, stating that the levels of corruption in the Spanish system could never occur in a country where a politician can go to jail for exchanging points on their driving licence.

There have been so many corruption scandals in Spain recently that I lost marks in my Politics and Government of Spain final exam for getting confused between them. A Spanish friend of mine said to me the other day that he wished the PP were like the Tories, because at least the Tories weren’t so corrupt and socially conservative. That might put it into perspective for British readers how awful the Spanish government is, and why there are so many new parties springing up.

However, Miriam also makes a spectacular critique of the new ones – one I shall quote at length here, if only for its relevance to the Scottish Lib Dems in facing down the SNP. “It makes me despair that the scourge of populism, that has extended across the Western world like a plague, is being confronted by traditional parties through the politics of fear. What will defeat the populism of Podemos, of UKIP, of Syriza and similar parties is not fear, it is common sense.”

Having said that, there is a new liberal party in Spain, a member of ALDE – Ciudadanos (C’s). They impressed me at the local mayoral hustings last night. They would have my vote most likely (if I had known I could register to vote) seeing as the local PP sent me a letter criticising C’s for wanting to allow abortion on demand before 12 weeks and to secularise the education system. A salutary lesson in the importance of targeting your election mailings, there.

Miriam mentions that their leader, Albert Riviera, sees Nick as a political role model. But – and this is my favourite part of the article – she goes on to criticise them heavily for their actions in Andalusia, where the PSOE (Socialist and Workers’ Party of Spain, about as socialist as Labour) has been left to govern as a minority: “I know Nick well enough to know that he would never leave an Autonomous Community without government to benefit himself or his party electorally.”

The ending of the article gives us, as we rebuild our party across the United Kingdom, an important reminder:

“This is doing politics of the liberal centre: reaching agreement though it is difficult, although it may have a personal cost or a cost for the party, and governing with common sense […] Because doing centrist politics isn’t just saying it. It’s doing it.”

* Hannah Bettsworth is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats Council for Europe, and the Liberal Democrat Federal International Relations Committee. Outside of politics, she works in European affairs consultancy on health policy.

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  • I love “UKIP, Syriza and similar parties”

  • Hannah Bettsworth 22nd May '15 - 11:55am

    Haha yes, that’s the kind of thing that would make Podemos get angry on Twitter, but it’s so true

  • ::Grin:: “UKIP, Syriza and similar parties = SNP”

  • Jamie Stewart 22nd May '15 - 12:46pm

    Interesting to learn a bit about Spanish politics, and to hear about Miriam’s views of it, thanks Hannah.

    Much as I disagree with some of Nick Clegg’s ideology, I did admire him for going into government with the Tories against all the unpopularity, but that admiration only lasted a short time, as I do think that there are good reasons why a line should be drawn eventually under an unpopular coalition, not least because you should also trust the system not to collapse just because a formal coalition isn’t formed, or an early election has to be called, but also because if it ultimately causes the destruction of “common sense”, and more division, what good can it be said to have done. Some government experience vs losing the trust of a vast majority of voters is not a good payoff for the Lib Dems. I’m optimistic about the Lib Dem’s future, but, nailing my colours to the mast, I think that it needs to move left from the Orange Book to regain any trust amongst the electorate, and I think it will be hard.

  • Hannah Bettsworth 22nd May '15 - 1:10pm

    There’s another piece of underlying context there – the interesting thing with Spain is that it has not managed to form a coalition since the transition, despite having a PR system.

    This is generally because one of our other European allies, CiU, the Catalan liberal independentists, did not particularly want to be involved in government on a federal level.

    I feel like it’s less about ‘some government experience’ as the tradeoff being ‘great liberal policies implemented’, which I’m still proud of in any case.

    As a Scot, I think the sorry tale of Jim Murphy is a cautionary tale of why not to move left, and Labour’s left wing rhetoric didn’t help them massively either. Elections just aren’t won in that spot.

  • “…As a Scot, I think the sorry tale of Jim Murphy is a cautionary tale of why not to move left….”

    Mr Murphy, he of The Henry Jackson Society, is hardly an example of Labour moving left.

    At the Henry Jackson Society he will have rubbed shoulders with Raheem Kassam who had various jobs there including marketing director (September 2010 – July 2012), communications director (July 2012 – April 2013) and an associate fellow (April 2013 – September 2014). 

    Raheem was also a senior adviser to Nigel Farage and UKIP until the bust up in UKIP this week when the thin-skinned snarling one was said to be too close to Raheem (considered a bit too rightwing for UKIP).

    Unless you meant that Murphy was moving left by moving towards UKIP.

  • Lawrence Fullick 22nd May '15 - 2:42pm

    Great piece Hannah. I see on twitter you call yourself a Centrist; Miriam implies she is one too too. This is relevant to our internal Lib Dem discussion ; should our position be that of the old French parti radical, non socialist progressives of the centre left if we have to use such terms.

  • As a long-term resident of Spain, I must take issue with some of this. Podemos is decidedly left-wing, that’s certain. It’s populism is based upon the fact that it decides policy locally through members’ forums. It’s actually quite democratic, especially when compared with policy-making in most other Spanish parties, or, indeed, in the Liberal-Democrats over the past few years. And the “populist” policies it’s putting forward include stoping the creeping privatization of Spain’s excellent health service, a crack-down on the culture of corruption affecting both main parties, and CiU in Catalonia, and restrictions on the epidemic of foreclosures which have been throwing unemployed Spaniards out on the streets since the beginning of the crisis. The response of the traditional parties has been name-calling and little else. Since the governing party more or less controls the media, that’s what the Spanish public have been hearing during the campaign…

  • Hannah Bettsworth 22nd May '15 - 4:13pm

    Podemos/Ganemos locally over here is accusing PP voters of being complicit in theft. If that isn’t ridiculous overblown populist rhetoric then I don’t know what is.

    The local Ganemos rep had absolutely nothing of any substance to say at the hustings apart from citizen participation, which suggests he doesn’t know what he would do as mayor personally – because you can’t decide everything by having a public meeting about it. He would have to make some decisions alone and I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about because it’s all just rhetoric.

    Also, on the subject of Jim Murphy he’s spent the last few months trying to mimic SNP rhetoric in every way and out left them. I know people who voted for him because they thought he would stick to the centre and watched his leadership unfold, with horror, as he tried to out Nat the Nats.

  • Daniel Medina Stacey 22nd May '15 - 4:34pm

    I think it is very unfair for Miriam González to criticise Ciudadanos (and, by the same measure, Podemos) for blocking the formation of a minority PSOE government in Andalusia, especially after she correctly identified corruption as the primary political issue in Spain at the moment. Both Ciudadanos and Podemos have been refusing to allow a Government of Andalusia to be formed (by voting “no” rather than abstaining) until Susana Díaz, PSOE’s candidate and incumbent, accepts a series of measures aimed at fighting the massive corruption in the region.

    References to the extreme levels of corruption in the ruling PP should not distract from the fact that PSOE is just as guilty. In Andalusia in particular, PSOE has been in power uninterruptedly for more than 32 years. This has allowed the formation of an entrenched culture of corruption in its government to the extent that the regions two previous presidents, José Antonio Griñán and Manuel Chaves, are both involved in one of the largest corruption scandals in Spain involving the misappropriation of more than €150 million (“Caso de los EREs”). Both of them are currently protected by a certain level of parliamentary immunity, Chaves being a congressman and Griñán a senator, and in fact one of Ciudadanos’ and Podemos’ demands is for Susana Díaz to press them to resign.

    If Susana Díaz wants Ciudadanos to stop blocking her government she only needs to take measures to tackle the ingrained corruption in her region and her section of PSOE. If a government cannot be formed for Andalusia the blame will rest squarely on her and her party.

  • FWIW, I have issues with C’s in that they seem to be complicit in the PSOE/PP-led stitch up against the Catalan population being able to determine their futures through a fair and independently supervised referendum. That said, I’m still happy that liberalism and progressivism clearly isn’t dead in Spain.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd May '15 - 5:59pm

    Great article Hannah and good stuff from Miriam too.

  • Miriam has close family ties to the PP, which is a very illiberal party, so it’s good to see criticism of them there. Spanish statists hate the SNP because it inspires their own nationalities to seek more autonomy/independence. Podemos is noisy studenty left, in my view, a bit like the middle class kids from Bucks who joined the Socilaist Workers’ Party as students writ large.
    PSOE, the main socialist party used to be quite liberal, or at least anti-catholic church. Not yet sure about Cuidadnos, they seem to want to be more right of centre right in many ways. In the Canaries, the CC was quite liberal, and in the north the Magentas were much like our SDP. The CC was also pro-business though. The Catalan nationalists are not avowedly left wing at all, but open to social liberal ideas. I don’t pretend to understand the Basque politics. Andalucia was a bastion of PSOE, hence the heat about coalition there.

  • Hannah Bettsworth 22nd May '15 - 9:04pm

    Sarah, so do I actually. We’re in a bit of an odd situation in that we’re allies with C’s, UPyD and CiU. CiU did get a bit angry with ALDE about that one, if I remember correctly.

    I’m not sure about Coalicion Canarias as I live in Castilla y León so I can’t help you there haha.

    The noisy left in Salamanca University seems to be split between Podemos, IU, PCE, and the CNT, which is standard for the left the world over 😛

  • Hmmmm. There’s quite a bit of superficial knowledge here. UpD is currently tearing itself to pieces because of the authoritarian attitudes of its leader, Rosa Diez, who will not accept any criticism of her leadership from within the party. CiU is a conservative party which campaigns for Catalan independence in coalition with the Republican Left party. Ciudadanos was founded by Albert Rivera specifically to oppose Catalan independence and, as pointed out above, they campaigned strongly to prevent the free expression of the Catalan people in a referendum on independence. They are strongly pro-business in their economic policies, with attitudes pretty close to Osborne/Cameron These policies may appeal to Orange Book Liberals, but are rather to the right of what would be mainstream Liberal Democrat leanings.
    Podemos are, indeed, reminiscent of the student movement of the 1970s. That might be because Spanish society is really quite backwards in this respect. The settlement upon which the Transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy was based essentially pledged Spanish society to pretend that the Civil War never happened. Fascist (and Communist) torturers and murderers were never brought to justice and many of them continued to openly proclaim their views, although they had few followers. The socialists bought into this deal because it seemed like the best thing on offer at the time. What transpired was a two-party system dominated by the conservative Partido Popular and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español. They alternated in power and obtained absolute majorities in parliament partly because of the weird modified proportional representation system used here called the Sistema D’Hont which favours the larger parties at the expense of smaller groups, except for those like Coalicion Canario, the Partido Nationalista Vasco and CiU. The system gradually became more and more corrupt as voters felt they had little or no influence over those who were supposed to represent them. MPs were elected from party lists nominated by the party bosses and it was virtually impossible to express opposition to individuals who were put on the party lists, even if they were notorious locally for their corruption.
    Podemos grew out of huge popular demonstrations cross Spain against PP’s vicious program of austerity cuts and a feeling — largely justified — that the burden of paying off the deficit was falling almost exclusively on ordinary working and middle class people while the rich prospered, either through corruption or through direct government policies, like increasing VAT while cutting income tax for the wealthy. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of small investors saw their saving disappear when their shares in the savings banks were expropriated while millions of euros were poured into the banks to rescue them. Banks continued to declare huge profits since their unprofitable property speculations were absorbed by the tax-payer.
    Yes, they are idealistic and have some hugely impractical ideas — much like our own Red Guard from the 60s and 70s — but the public responded because they felt that at last here was a group that would LISTEN to them. It is unlikely that Podemos will get as much support as the polls have been suggesting for several reasons. The television stations, including the state-owned channels, are dominated by PP and have largely ignored Podemos, failing to cover their meetings for the most part and, on the rare occasions they do interview someone from the party, attacking them unmercifully. They also rely exclusively on individual contributions to finance their campaigns whilst PP, PSOE and C’s rely more on corporate sponsors (or various types of illegal financing). And, as with the SNP in the UK, there has been a coordinated fear campaign on the part of all the other parties to the effect that Podemos supports Basque terrorists and wants to turn Spain into another Venezuela… This was typified by a recent radio debate between the Podemos candidate for mayor of Madrid and Esperanza Aguirre who’s running for PP. Manuela Carmena, the Podemos candidate is a courteous, rather old-fashioned lady who is a retired judge. She tried to debate policies in her contribution. Aguirre limited herself to attacking Carmena for decisions she has made as a judge to reduce the sentences of Basque terrorists and to release a convicted anarchist terrorist after the completion of 2/3rds of his sentence…
    I’m sorry this got a bit long, but I was getting a bit irritated by some of the half-truths that were being spouted on here by people who really don’t know the country or what its people have been forced to live through for the last few years…

  • Hannah Bettsworth 23rd May '15 - 12:35am

    I could have written a 1, 500 word or more essay on this, as I would have loved to explain the whole historical background but I don’t think Caron would have appreciated that somehow, so I just based it off my own experience in CyL. But yes, my friend Chema is making fun of the Venezuela rhetoric on Facebook at the moment.

    I’m not actually completely up to date on the Madrid mayoral race, I must admit.

    I know the PPSOE have had corruption scandal after corruption scandal, but C’s and Podemos had always portrayed themselves as above it, so I would be intrigued to see links to where C’s had been illegally financed.

    I must admit, although I rarely if ever watch TV here and get my news online, I don’t like the narrative of the ‘MSM’ brainwashing people to vote for a particular party. They’ve got the capacity to analyse what they are being shown and decide whether it is biased or not, and also to do their own research – and that’s the same in Britain and in Spain. People vote for parties because they perceive them to be competent and to have done a good job – if the PP is re-elected in Salamanca that will be why, as much as I dislike them.

  • Helen Dudden 23rd May '15 - 7:51am

    A country with history. Things are not easy there at present, again, not an article.

    I comment on Brussels 11a and the Hague Convention it should work in the EU, but that is another point.

  • Thanks Hannah for mentioning ‘Catalan liberal independents’ – not three words we normally group together. I will come back to them in a moment. Yesterday I was reading about the ‘Republic of Frome’ where on 7th May traditional parties were swept away by a party of independents who now hold all 17 seats in Frome. On the same day, several other towns elected similar independent councils.

    Back in Catalonia, and the liberal city of Barcelona, they are fighting for independence from a Spanish State which is dominated by old traditions. Catalonia sees new possibilities as does Scotland – to set new standards for itself. Meanwhile, we are wondering how it is that English cities, towns and regions are only being offered Mayors by an old, traditional and dominating party. Study Scotland, Catalonia and even Frome – for new ideas to shape our party for a future of discontented electors seeking new ways of governance. The key word used in all the above is independence. Independence from the stifling State which Liberals should once more focus upon – on the way back to local governance – and fortunately with a small but useful presence in parliament.

  • Hannah Bettsworth 23rd May '15 - 1:33pm

    Sorry, I said “independentists” – it’s a description that comes from the Spanish and is what they use to describe CiU. They mean that CiU seeks independence from Spain. They are not Independents, they support independence. Apologies if that was confusing 🙂

  • Simon Foster 23rd May '15 - 4:52pm

    Great article Hannah 🙂

    If the CiU support independence through a vote and referenda we’d call them “Liberal nationalists” at A level Politics in the UK.

    Mind you, we call the SNP “Liberal nationalists” according to my exam syllabus, whereas I’ve taught my students a wide range of both positive and negative opinions about the SNP…

  • The massive drop in support for PSOE and PP in the elections and the huge support for Podemos and, to a much lesser extent, Cuidadanos, shows several things:
    1. You don’t need an expensive campaign to attract votes. Podemos campaigned with hardly ANY money, and the Podemos-supported local council groupings had even less. In my village, there were about five or six posters for Si Se Puede, the Podemos-supported group, while PP & PSOE and banners and posters on almost every lamp-post. Even Cuidandanos and Izquierda Unida had extensive leaflet and poster campaign. But, when the votes were counted, Si Se Puede did better than PSOE, IU and C’s…
    2. It IS possible to win votes even when the popular press is strongly biased against you. The state-controlled TV and radio stations were heavily biased in favour of the ruling party and were dominated by PP “independent commentators” and largely ignored anything Podemos did or said. The commercial stations were also largely opposed to the group. And yet, Podemos came within a whisker of defeating the PP candidate for mayor of Madrid, a city that has been controlled by them for over 20 years.
    I think there are some lessons here for the Liberal Democrats in the current situation…

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