Podemos and radical change in the UK
by Ian Sinclair
17 November 2014
Though it’s been ignored by the British media, the explosive new poll showing the continuing rise of the new Spanish political party Podemos has huge ramifications for politics in the UK and across the world.
The El Pais survey found that Podemos has become the most popular party in Spain, gaining 27.7% of the potential vote, ahead of the ruling conservative party (20.7%) and the opposition Socialist Party (26.2%). What’s particularly impressive about this result is Podemos was only formed in January 2014, and are unapologetically leftist, or as a Financial Times blog warns, ‘Podemos policies are vague, populist, anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation’.
‘Podemos’ should be the one word response to political apathy and resignation, to anyone who says ‘Nothing ever changes’ or argues that votes can only be won in the neoliberal, soul-destroying space between New Labour and the Tories or the Democrats and Republicans.
However, it’s important to understand this isn’t an isolated event. If you have your political antenna tuned to the right frequency, hopeful moments when politics makes a radical jump beyond previously accepted norms and assumptions, or at least has the potential to do so, pop up all the time.
If I had written an article in 2003 saying a Black man will be the President of the United States in five years I would have been ridiculed. In Greece, the left-wing Syriza party went from receiving 4.6% of the vote in the 2009 general election to achieving 26.6% of the vote in 2012, becoming the main opposition party. In Canada, the New Democratic Party moved from being the progressive party with no chance of getting a whiff of real power, to unexpectedly leap-frogging the Liberal Party in the 2011 general election and becoming the nation’s second party. And let’s not forget UKIP who, by coming first in the 2014 European elections, became the first party in over a century other than Labour or the Conservatives to come first in a nationwide election.
Obvious and trite it may be, but it bears repeating: things do change. Often for the better, sometimes for worse – usually frustratingly slowly. But under the right conditions, change can be rapid and unexpected – even to those involved in pushing for the political change themselves. ‘I was in Leipzig on the afternoon of November 9th 1989 with the leaders of the East German opposition’, former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges related in 2012. ‘And they said “Well maybe within a year they’ll be free passage back and forth across the Berlin Wall”. Within a matter of hours the Berlin Wall at least as an impediment to traffic no longer existed. That was a huge lesson for me. Even those closely associated with these movements don’t know where they are going and often times don’t know what their potential is.’
The fall of the Soviet Union, the end of Apartheid, the Arab Spring – all blindsided many of the top experts who had spent their entire professional lives studying these countries.
In terms of UK politics, Podemos’s stratospheric rise gives succour to all those hoping to break the power of the ossified three party system. And it also puts a huge dent into the popular argument that all progressives should rally around the Labour Party to keep the Tories out. As the internet-based media watchdog recently tweeted, ‘The UK Podemos could be eight months away from being the most popular party in Britain’.
Furthermore, it gives a huge boost to everyone pushing for radical change – especially in the face of the looming climate crisis. As Naomi Klein explains in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, because of endless delays in addressing rising emissions, only an immediate, massive transformation will now save us from levels of climate change that will pose an existential threat to humanity. And by ‘massive transformation’, Klein means something on the scale of the Marshall Plan or the national mobilisation during the Second World War.
None of this will happen of its own accord. I’m no Hispanophile but Podemos will have only reached its current level of popularity through the daily toil of thousands of activists and millions of supporters. ‘If you want to make changes in the world, you’re going to have to be there day after day doing the boring, straightforward work of getting a couple of people interested in an issue, building slightly bigger organizations, carrying out the next move, experiencing frustration, and finally getting somewhere’, American dissident Noam Chomsky argues. ‘That’s how you get rid of slavery, that’s how you get women’s rights, that’s how you get the vote’.
Sounds bloody hard work to me. But as freed slave Frederick Douglass famously said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will’.
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair.