What the Liberal Democrats should learn from Ciudadanos

These past two weeks have taken me back to being a 16 year old first starting to watch election debates in the UK. I’ve watched so many Spanish debates I know the campaign messages off by heart, and, being a young person, I’m up to date with all the Twitter memes. A (comparatively) young centrist leader, Albert Rivera, branded as a kingmaker, and constantly questioned about who he’ll seek to work with after the elections can’t help but be compared to Nick Clegg, especially when considered to be “the sexiest candidate in the campaign according to all the polls.”, and when the PSOE is talking about a vote for anyone else as a vote for the PP. It’s all oddly familiar. That comparison to Britain has backed Rivera into a corner, to an extent – the narrative over the last few weeks has been that Ciudadanos won’t enter into a coalition unless they are the party leading it.

However, the comparisons with 2010 extend further – there has been a serious drop in C’s support over the past few days, and today’s headline is that they will remain kingmakers but get far less seats than expected. Looking at the Andorran fruit markets (a cipher for polling, which cannot be published in the five days before the election) gave me the same feeling of shock as seeing the exit polls in the UK election. We’ll see what happens – I’ve already turned down a bet on the election result as a fool’s errand this morning – but chances are that it won’t be possible to live up to the hype.

There are still lessons we can learn from Ciudadanos, though, and the party should seek to get in contact and learn them. The international press has given a lot of support to the party, and there was a quote that really caught my eye:

Imagine if there had been a counter-party to the SNP in Scotland. Not a national movement like the Better Together campaign from 2014, but an actual Scottish party which looked at the hypocrisies, hyperboles and hallucinations of the SNP and the separatists and presented a credible alternative. Now imagine that this new upstart became the second largest party in the Scottish parliament, offering a commitment to social welfare but with liberal labour reforms and a better education system. In a national election, what if this pro-union centre party were to take on the established left and right? What would happen?

Our own party could do far worse than try to emulate this movement. They know how it is to face extreme abuse from Podemos and the Socialist Party of Catalunya (PSC) – the former’s co-founder having accused Rivera of taking drugs and the latter having used a fake tweet to accuse him of misogyny – but the party is very good at rising above it and promoting a narrative of hope. It used these events to launch a call to leave the old ‘rubbish’ politics behind. There’s a space for that in Scotland – a party with a positive narrative for real change that leaves the Cybernats to cry amongst themselves.  They know what it means to fight nationalism in their own area – Rivera has been accused of not being Catalan because he believes in remaining part of Spain. Again, it’s all rather similar sounding.

All in all, no matter what happens today, this new liberal party’s given me renewed hope for the future of Spain and for the European liberal movement. We can ride waves of discontent and get back into a position of power – it’s a matter of working out how to tap into it. Guy Verhofstadt has recognized this, and I’d definitely like to see Willie Rennie getting on the phone to Ciudadanos’s Catalan leader Inés Arrimadas after the elections.

* 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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  • The question I have is; what do they stand for? And in particular how do they intend to resolve Spain economic problems? I think whoever wins the Spanish general election is going to have to make some incredibly difficult decisions and will risk becoming unpopular very quickly.

  • Hannah Bettsworth 20th Dec '15 - 4:24pm

    Their manifesto lays out a 6 point plan to tackle inequality and and exclusion:
    1. A new framework of labour relations to put an end to the transient nature of contracts and end precarity
    2. Introducing a form of tax credits to ensure everyone has a decent salary and aren’t disincentivised to work
    3. A plan of action to tackle long term unemployment through training, help in searching for work and hiring subsidies
    4. A ‘second opportunity law’ for debtors
    5. An active European policy to tackle unemployment
    6. A new Model Of Employment Policy for a Decade

    There is a huge amount of detail in this and it’s too time-consuming to translate (sorry!) but it’s broadly about training and empowering individuals with individualised attention to help them back into the workplace, as well as guaranteeing the availability of adult education.

  • Thank you Hannah, informative and thought provoking, I agree with Albert #IagreewithAlbert

  • paul barker 20th Dec '15 - 5:06pm

    Can I add my thanks for an interesting article. Theres one big difference between The problems faced by Spanish & British Liberals – our electoral system. As well as convincing voters that we have good ideas we also have the extra barrier of the “wasted vote”. That is why I am obsessed with the splits in both our Major Parties. Next Summer will see prominent Tories campaigning both for Britain to leave & stay in The EU, The Government are going to look pretty chaotic.
    At the same time Labour will be facing its first real Electoral test & we will find out if our Recovery is cutting through to the voters. Ayear from now British politics may look very different.

  • what is it with the lib dems and this endless sniping at the snp? you do know that liberals support self determinatio , right? our own preamble says so! The Cs at least had a programme beyond ‘holding the union together, and stopping the Tories being too nasty’ which, if we are honest, got about as much of a welcome as it deserved in May. Alas.
    Is the strategy really to continue to peddle unionism-lite and detail lighter policies here in the UK in future?

  • Jonathan Brown 20th Dec '15 - 7:40pm

    Thanks for your article Hannah, very interesting. I agree with your conclusions about the need for Liberal Democrats – in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK – to rise above the negativity of the SNP (and others) and offer reform and hope.

    Will be watching the Spanish election results with keen interest, and a wish that my Spanish was better!

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Dec '15 - 9:10pm

    Thanks for this Hannah. Are Ciudadanos more centrist or economic liberal? There’s often not much of a difference, but I still think there is an important difference. Radical economic liberals worry me, but sometimes economic liberals are good at challenging the status quo.

    They don’t sound very libertarian to me. They sound good. A shame they haven’t done better.

  • It does look as though the PSOE will be able to form a government with PODEMOS, which is very good news indeed.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Dec '15 - 12:29am

    Just found out Ciudadanos are against even a referendum on Catalan independence. I wouldn’t have voted for them. Self determination is the most important political principal in my eyes.

  • Liberal Neil 21st Dec '15 - 1:45pm

    @johnmc – yes, fully support the right of self-determination, as we showed by supporting and campaigning in the referendum. SNP need also accept self-determination.

  • Every time I read these international articles its a delight . very thoughtful , Hannah do continue the theme . Eddie , don t agree with you on one point , do on another . I would not want to see a referendum on Cornish independence , sorry to offend Cornish independence advocates , though hopefully they re few today , or on here ! Why , ? I do not consider it to be a country . Therefore , entirely happy to spend money on a referendum on greater autonomy , ie an assembly , but not independence . Also , liberal or Liberal parties need to be healers , Spain has had some horrible terrorist outrage re separatist fanatics , those wounds can be best closed with unity , not division . Agree , however that consent of the governed , any of us , is essential . just not on breaking up a country .

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Dec '15 - 9:47am

    Hi Lorenzo, if you say as you have done “consent of the governed is not essential on breaking up a country” then it amounts to occupation. It would go down very badly and cause more problems than independence would cause.

    If people don’t feel they can vote to leave a country then obviously you are going to get separatists resorting to violence instead. This is partly why I care about democracy so much: it prevents wars by allowing us to solve things in the ballot box.

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Dec '15 - 11:01am

    Lorenzo – if there were substantial support in Cornwall for independence then it would absolutely be right to hold a referendum and if the vote were in favour, for Cornwall to become independent. They’d be mad to do it, perhaps, but we have the right to do things other people think are stupid or not in our best interests.
    The only reason for not holding a referendum – and it is a very good reason, much better than an a priori diktat that Cornwall is “not a country” – is that demonstrated support for the proposition is practically zero, so it would be a waste of public money and political effort. The contrast with Catalonia is, I think, obvious.

  • Eddie, I cannot consider it occupation , as I cannot consider the one being apparently occupied as a separate country . Malcolm, therefore, not a dictat , a view . I would need to be convinced , not of dissatisfaction , rather , that a country , separately existed , before granting a referendum . To be frank , I am not convinced about Quebec , to an extent , nor , at all re the South in civil war America . They d have to convince me first .

  • Here is the regional breakdown of the Spanish GE results from Wikipedia:


    As you can see, Podemos did phenomenally well in both Euskal Herria and Catalonia. Their promise to allow these nations independence if they so wish clearly paid dividends. In Gipuzkoa, they took votes from Bildu and the PSOE, and in the more conservative Bizkaia they ended up breathing down the necks of the PNV. Basque identity has spread to regions that have little Basque history, such as Las Encartaciones and the southern part of Araba. Over 40% of Basque children up to the age of 14 are now enrolled in Basque medium ikastolak, and knowledge and everyday use of the language is increasing. I have no idea what they call Podemos. The nearest one can get is Dezakegu “we can have it”. And have it they will.

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