Podemos, the Labour Party, and Momentum.
Is it also the Moment for Momentum?
The radical left party, Podemos, won 21,3% (69 seats) in Sunday’s Spanish General election, just behind the socialist PSOE, at 21,7% (90) With Rajoy’s conservative PP party at 28,7% (123) and the centrist Cuididanos (Citizens) at 14,9 % (40) negotiations for coalition are underway involving smaller regional and other parties (Wikipedia).
Both Podemos and Cuididanos were present in this contest for the first time. Their entry into the Cortes Generales is a political earthquake with Europe-wide implications. Podemos draws on the Indignados movement that began as protests against the political class “la casta”, their corruption, budget cuts and mass unemployment (at the time up to 21%). Cuidadonos’ name also echoes that period, the march dubbed Mareas Cuidadanas – citizens’ tide).
Owen Jones, has expressed the view that the Labour Party is represented in Parliament by a British counterpart of the Spanish Socialist Party, the PSOE, while supporters attracted to Jeremy Corbyn were more akin to the radical left party, Podemos. Jones, whose pre-election visit to lend support to Podemos’ campaign was reported on the state broadcasters, is one amongst many on the European left who admire its left populist anti-austerity politics. In this view the change in Labour’s leadership (allowed through emulation of the ‘primary’ party elections of the French Parti Socialiste and Italian Partido Democratia, open to all for a modest fee, rather than the structures of Podemos) had brought our politics closer to Spain’s. It suggested that a form of ‘new politics’ has emerged in the United Kingdom, inside the traditional left and now given expression in the open forums of Momentum.
Podemos leader Juliá Iglesias’ entry into Parliament is joined, nobody has failed to notice, by the ‘centre’ group, Ciudadanos. Jones seems to have found a centrist counterpart in Peter Hyman. The former speech-writer and strategist for Tony Blair argued in the Observer that Labour is becoming the “Ukip of the left”, a party of protest and not power, with the prospect of capturing at best 28% of the vote (Observer. 20.12.15). This means that the party “mainstream” will look elsewhere. Corbyn, head of a left wing party, “appealing to mix of metropolitan elites, students and some trade unionists”, a popular constituency in “tribal Labour loyalty”, relying on “big state solutions” will carry on. They will keep trying to win arguments but have no prospect of coming to power. One could note that the British electoral system, unlike Spain’s proportional one, remains an effective bloc to the kind of shake up Hispanic politics has undergone.
Hyman attacks Ed Miliband for opening the door to the left – although it was the modernisers who promoted the idea of One Member One Vote in a ‘primary’ election form. He states that with the “wrong” result, – Corbyn’s victory – there is a “gaping hole in the centre and centre-left of British politics.” It would not take much to extend this to say that against the Podemos road Hayman advocates a British Ciudadanos. This would be an alliance of the centre and the centre-left, “modern progressive values-driven party” with a “commitment to social mobility”. A new ‘project’ would aim for a “leaner, more agile empowering state” that backs “social entrepreneurs” to build “diverse and democratic communities”. This formula, Peter Hayman believes, his appetite no doubt wetted, would have a “fighting chance of winning an election”.
It would be mistake on the left to take the take the analogy with Podemos and the POSOE to heart. Spain has suffered several decades of corruption scandals, affecting the established left, as well as a prolonged ‘dirty war’ against the armed wing of the Basque independence movement, in which Socialist governments were deeply compromised. These scandals continued under the conservative PP, from the 2013 Bárcenas affair, a slush fund to pay party members, and others too numerous to list, including one involving the than leader of the Catalan nationalist leader Jordi Pujol, whose party is now demanding independence.
There has been nothing in Britain to parallel the mass movement of the Indignados, the cradle of Podemos. It is estimated that between 6 and 8 million people participated in these street activities. Those protests made the US Occupy Wall Street look trivial, not to mention the smaller British initiations of the American demonstrations and occupations. A much more successful UK initiative, the anti-austerity People’s Assembly, has mobilised hundreds of thousands and set up large groups all over the country. It was, and is, however closely linked the existing mechanisms of the labour movement. There was none of the loathing for all “politicians” that the Spanish masses expressed. France, where the Podemos breakthrough has been heralded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the home of the (deceased) writer Stéphane Hessel, whose book Indignez-Vous! gave the Indignados their name – saw, and has seen, practically no movement at all apart from trade union protests.
The comparison with Podemos also runs into obstacles when one considers it more broadly. Its strategic line is said to draw on the writings of Ernesto Laclau. Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1988) offered a critique of traditional Marxism and a freeing of political and social contradictions from rigid class categories. It was widely regarded on the British left as dense theoretical fog for a shift from class politics to the nebulous democratic alliances of ‘new times’. In subsequent writings, generally languishing in academic obscurity, Laclau developed an approach to the specificity of politics. His interest in a left strategy that focused on the discursive articulations of popular democratic struggles and fights for left hegemony broadened into approaches to the – still predominantly ‘discursive’ – mechanisms of politics. Interest in the figure of the ‘People’ against the elite, linked Laclau to some of his earliest writings on Populism, with special reference to Latin America.
In On Populist Reason (2005) Laclau retained an emphasis on the specificity of democratic movements outside and against formal political power. Laclau stated, “populism requires the dichromatic division of society into two camps – one presenting itself as a part which claims to be the whole; that this dichotomy involves the antagonistic division of the social field, and that the popular camp presupposes as a conditions of its constitution the constriction of a globalised entity out of the equivalence of a plurality of social demands.” Put simply populism means pitting the people against an array of forces solidified into a simple enemy – an observation which did not wait for Laclau to be discovered. Interviewed this year in New Left Review Iglesias acknowledged his theoretical attraction to almost Marxist ‘Gramscian’ earlier writings, but that the later work offers a “useful tool” for explaining the “autonomy of politics”. Or, again, to put it directly, it gives legitimacy to a way of constructing politics in terms of friend and foe (Carl Schmitt) using a galaxy of propaganda forms to give this shape. It is widely claimed that Podemos’ consciously utilises this instrument in their strategy: the People are mobilised against the ‘Casta’, the ruling caste. (1)
These ideas, whose abstraction and infinite extension, leftwards and rightwards, critics have not failed to note, should not hide the difficulties of creating a different type of politics. Paul Mason’s post-election claim that the pro-business SNP is part of the same ” radical, populist and nationalist left” only reinforces this impression. (Guardian 21.12.15.)
The more modest and attractive aspect of Podemos has apparently been its openness, its willingness to dissolve traditional political organisational forms into new ones, connected to social media and other ways of vertical communication. But when it comes to decision-making problems arise. US and British experience of cumbersome conformity and construction of new elites inside the ‘structurelessness’ of vertical communication and “consensus decision-making” emerged in the wake of the Occupy movement. Inside Podemos there are widely shared complaints about a very visible “vertical” and top-down leadership. This has not been without its faults, as few members participated in voting on the Podemos electoral programme or candidate selection. By contrast Íñigo Errejón, a defender of their strategy, has talked of leading from in front, and the key role of the charismatic Julias Iglesias, as welcome features of Podemos’ efforts to break the mould of traditional left-right politics, indeed to surpass this “old” division. It is a “fundamental element in building hegemony.” (2)
Labour: a ‘Synthesis’.
The Labour Party is, to say the least, not a ‘new’ party. It is a coalition, or better, a ‘bloc’ of disparate forces. Unlike a true coalition it has not always reached full agreement on a detailed programme of political action. There have always been substantial differences on major issues – the present leader is the best example of this extending to Parliamentary votes. But as a “bloc”, that is to say a common front for elections, it has brought together ‘sociological’ forces – the unions – the Party – the NEC, the Parliamentary Party, professional politicians, an army of local councillors, and small more ideological groups or networks, from Progress to the Labour Representation Committee. In more sociological terms this is often portrayed in terms of a marriage between the radical intelligentsia, middle class social reformers, hard-headed trade unionists, and, it has to be said, patriotic ‘national’ Labour of all classes. It is electoral activity that holds these all together. But the signs are, as Haynes indicates, that as more ideological forces enter the field, from Labour First to and Momentum, disagreements are becoming sharper. Divorce, some say, is the only answer.
This break up may be desirable for some on the left and the right. But Hyman is right to suggest that winning elections is not a trivial affair. For those who want to see a Labour government a split is a disaster. The electoral system is not going to change – with boundary changes it is going to become more difficult for the party to elect MPs. In these conditions the principal problem for an old, not a new party, is not to extend its debates outwards. It is to reach some kind of equilibrium within Labour that holds the apparatus together. In some of the more ideological European socialist parties the idea of a “synthesis” between the different parts of these organisations in the process of presenting an electoral platform is a way to resolve these differences. Jean Jaurès, the towering figure of the 20th century French left, advocated a strongly democratic form of socialism (republicanism), human rights, reforms, social ownership and Marxist principles of class struggle. In short, he combined “evolution” and a revolutionary transformation of capitalism into socialism. The notion of drawing ideas together rather than setting them up for stage battles has, for those who wish to see a Labour Prime Minster elected with a party in support, is surely preferable to a prolonged civil war. (3)
What relevance does Podemos have in this context? Their tertulias (open debating forums) may perhaps inform some of those involved in Momentum. But there the analogy breaks down. There is nothing resembling the common sense of deep social angst and purpose that animated the 15-M Movement. Momentum is recruited around support for the new Labour leadership. Already the operations of small socialist organisations, using the Corbyn’s supporters’ network to promote their own agenda of party building and throwing discredit on Labour MPs and councils, have weakened claims about “new politics”. It seems that one objective, of these bodies, to hector councillors to set illegal anti-cuts budgets, has already met with Jeremy Corbyn’s disapproval. It is doubtful if these people care. These groups believe in making a new left-wing party, of contestable democratic credentials, whether the bulk of Labour Party members and supporters want it or not. The activities of the People’s Assembly, directed at the real enemy, the Conservative government, with the clear backing of the trade unions, engaged in a fruitful and respectful dialogue with sections of the Labour Party, appear to have run out of steam.
If we pick our way through the debates inside and outside the Labour Party there are grounds to imagine that a new ‘synthesis’ or at least co-existence of different strands of thought could come about. The modern Labour Party can make space for social democratic proposals for reform, universal principles of rights and justice, with our modern understanding of racial, sexual and gender equality, and expanded renewed welfare provision, Green issues, and more radical ideas on democratic nationalisation, economic transformation, internationalism, and the promotion of working class interests. Hay
Ideas of greater social mobility, “social entrepreneurs” and “progressive” alliances will look pretty tired faced with proposals for genuine equality, liberty and social solidarity. A rich vein of radical literature, from Pierre Rosanvallon’s studies of equality, Thomas Picketty’s critique of rentier capital, to David Harvey’s undogmatic Marxist approach to capitalism – to cite only a handful of new resources for change – could help debate. Some of the able Labour leaders’ advisers can surely expand this list of ‘tool boxes’ for democratic socialist change. In this sense Labour could present a challenge not to a broadly defined ‘casta’ but to the right-wing business and oligarchies and their hangers profiteering from the privatising-state not to mention their political representatives who are our real opponents.
Activists and Policy.
New Labour was marked by separation between policy and activism, between those who decided and those who carried out the leadership’s decision. This drove people away in crowds. If Podemos teaches us something it is that their brand of leftist populism has clearly reached an audience. It also, unfortunately, indicates that there is more than one way to institutionalise an inability to influence policy.
If Labour wishes to reach outwards it needs more open policy-making. Meetings that count, and not simple get-togethers, or tertulias, stand a better long-term chance of mobilising those new to politics. Nothing can prevent those who wish to grandstand, or find a pretext for criticising the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, coming along. Democracy always means minorities that disagree. But when the stakes, the possibility of making a difference to how a party works and what it is aiming at, are there, the potential for agreement also exists. Drawing a new audience into Labour and not outside it, the feeling that the public is not separated from ‘them’ inside the party, is not easy. But one suspects that it is preferable to a ‘populism’ whose final destination remains unclear.
(1) Page 83 Ernesto Laclau. On Populist Reason. Verso. 2005. Pablo Iglesias. Understanding Podemos. Interview. New Left Review. No 93. 2015. Populisme, Itinéraire d’un mot voyager. Gérard Mauger. Le Monde Diplomatique. July 2015.
(2) Podemos and its Critics. Bécquer Seguín. Radical Philosophy 193. 2015.
(3) Jaurés et le Réformisme Révolutionnaire. Jean-Paul Scot. Seuil. 2014.