Spain’s Left Badly Needs to Join Its Forces
Labor minister Yolanda Díaz is Spain’s most popular politician — and her new Sumar electoral vehicle promises to greatly expand the Left’s support. But the project remains marred by infighting, with strained relations between Díaz and her Podemos allies.
“To defeat the Right [electorally] is relatively easy but we want to change people’s lives and to win a new country.” So said Spanish labor minister Yolanda Díaz as polling showed her proposed left-unity platform Sumar making major gains ahead of the general election planned for later in 2023. In a December 5 poll for the Prisa Group, her new electoral vehicle was projected to secure 18.7 percent of the vote and fifty-nine seats — that is, twenty more MPs than the combined 2019 electoral result for Unidas Podemos alliance and former ally Más País.
Diaz took over from Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias as deputy prime minister in mid-2021. Since then, she has repeatedly polled as Spain’s most popular political leader — outperforming even Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who leads the center-left Socialists (PSOE). Combining a clear institutional profile with her close links to the country’s trade unions, she has sought to reorientate the radical left as an alternative governing force to PSOE, while contesting its claim to be Spain’s natural party of labor. “Yolanda is a reformist social democrat but with the virtue that she does what she says — prioritizing concrete gains for working-class people and defending their living standards,” Unidas Podemos MP Txema Guijarro tells Jacobin.
Sumar’s polling suggests that a reorganized and united left could come out of its grueling term as PSOE’s junior partner in a stronger position electorally. This would be an impressive achievement given the travails of the last four years. Excluded from the major ministries of state, Unidas Podemos and its five ministers have had to accept a series of unpalatable decisions in foreign, defense, and security policy. They have focused their efforts on social reforms and a more progressive response to the pandemic and subsequent cost-of-living crisis — against PSOE resistance. In recent months, they have forced a series of concessions, with Sánchez accepting the Left’s emergency proposals to slash transport fares (including making commuter and medium-distance trains free for at least sixteen months), introducing inflation-level increases in key welfare programs, and imposing a temporary wealth tax and moderate windfall taxes on the energy giants and the banks.
But, worryingly, the same Prisa poll also offers an alternative scenario where left unity fails to materialize. We learn that running separate electoral lists could cost the Left up to twenty-five seats. Given that Sumar’s rollout has become increasingly bogged-down in renewed factionalism, revolving around a high-stakes standoff between Díaz and the Podemos leadership, such a scenario cannot be ruled out. Indeed, rising tensions have seen a series of routine tactical disputes over the last year turn into near existential crises — bringing the current Unidas Podemos parliamentary alliance to the point of a definitive split in October. With local and regional elections scheduled for May, time is running out for the Left to make good on the promise inherent in Sumar’s name, to unite and join together.
A New Project
Despite these tensions, Díaz’s team see Sumar’s polling surge as vindicating their path to left unity through a much broader process of renewal and reorganization rather than a simple coalition of existing parties. At Sumar’s inaugural event in Madrid last July, she did not share the stage with other political leaders but rather with activists, trade unionists, and members of civic groups as she underscored how Sumar would be a “citizens’ movement” seeking to “construct a project for the country for the coming decade.” Sumar’s initial phase of development has involved a series of such public events, which have taken place without formal involvement from the existing parties and have been conceived as a “listening process” between Díaz and civil society. At the same time, thirty-five expert groups are working in parallel on the platform’s longer-term program of radical reform, the guiding principles of which were unveiled on January 12.
Díaz’s decision to construct Sumar initially at a distance from current left-wing parties has various motivations, including her own lack of an organized power base. A non-active member of the Spanish Communist Party and a MP for a regional Galician platform allied to Iglesias’s party, she had no official role in either Podemos or Izquierda Unida when the coalition took office in January 2020. Even so, Iglesias handed her the Left’s only major ministerial position on the back of her professional record as a labor lawyer, as well as the pair’s long-standing political relationship. While the intention now is to build a broader electoral front around the Sumar brand, preferably by incorporating other forces into the platform ahead of December’s general election, Díaz has first had to generate organizational muscle and a loyal cadre of her own.
Yet one of her senior advisors tells Jacobin: “It is not just about ensuring she can exercise authority over the Left, which as an objective would be legitimate in itself for any new leader. Sumar also stems from the need to construct a new project centered on a fresh set of ideological coordinates so as to once again be capable of widening the Left’s electoral base — as the early Podemos did in 2015.” Guijarro, a close parliamentary ally of Díaz, agrees:
Since 2015–16, we have seen the shrinking of our political space and it is evident we need to regain momentum and to rearticulate for a new moment the principles and bases that allowed us to capture six million votes back then. Right now we are only reaching three million with the forces that remain within the Unidas Podemos alliance. Yolanda is seeking a new narrative, a new language that is more inclusive and, above all hopeful — creating an inspiring future horizon. This has been lost in recent years.
A core pillar of this new project is the promise of a “renewed” or “democratic” laborism. A decade after the Indignados movement’s Occupy-style insurgency pushed trade unionism to the margins of left-wing politics, organized labor has regained a certain centrality. It became a key actor backing Díaz’s legislative agenda as labor minister, in which she has pushed workers’ rights to the forefront of public debate. In particular, this close working relationship has facilitated Díaz’s negotiation of a series of “social dialogue” agreements between employers and labor around some of the coalition’s most high-profile policies. These include a number of moderate minimum-wage rises, legislation cracking down on false self-employment in the gig economy, and, in 2022, the coalition’s flagship reform of the country’s labor laws (which strengthens collective bargaining rights and severely limits the use of precarious temporary work contracts).
At the same time, Díaz’s advisor explains that “though the unions are careful about guarding their formal autonomy from political organizations, an important part of Sumar’s leading cadre are coming from that world, in particular from the Comisiones Obreras union [of which Díaz’s father was a founding figure during the Franco dictatorship].” “This is another difference with Podemos where most of the original leadership was recruited from student politics or a social-movement background,” he adds.
A Governing Force
Beyond this focus on labor, Sumar’s messaging centers on a social democratic discourse laying claim to the Left’s record in office while positioning the new platform as a deeper reformist project stretching beyond what is possible within the confines of the current coalition government. In this respect, the administration’s more progressive legislative reforms and interventionist measures faced with the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis are framed as only initial moves in “the search for a collective exit” from neoliberalism.
At the unveiling of Sumar’s programmatic outline earlier this month, Díaz invoked the Beveridge Report and Clement Attlee’s 1945 UK Labour government as a precedent for the type of ambitious state reformism needed in our current moment. In a period of “epochal change comparable to the 1940s,” she claimed a progressive decade could be won in Spain with a politics based on social protection in the face of growing uncertainty and an expansion of labor and social rights. One of the coordinators overseeing the platform’s program, professor of labor law Antonio Baylos insisted at the same event that Sumar’s focus had to be less on vanguardist ideological struggle as “on fundamentally putting forward a material politics” that can offer Spain’s social majority a tangible alternative to the discredited neoliberal formulas.
A similar premise has underpinned Díaz’s tactical approach to the coalition, distancing herself from her predecessor’s polarizing approach. With Iglesias’s final months at cabinet defined by governmental deadlock and falling polling numbers, she believed the Left had to cultivate a closer working relationship with PSOE while focusing on concrete policy delivery. Nor was she alone in this conclusion. There was a recognition amongst much of the Left that Podemos’s attempts to combine its left-populist critique of the Spanish state with participation in government had largely backfired in a post-pandemic atmosphere marked by anti-political sentiment. Highly charged controversies around lawfare, media bias, or speech laws, as well as public infighting within the coalition, simply appeared as further “noise” to an exhausted electorate — even if what the party had to say was analytically valid.
In contrast, Díaz has insisted that if the Left is to “escape from the margins” and (like the early Podemos) pursue a majoritarian appeal, in the current moment it must embody a “useful,” pragmatic politics. Part of this, for Sumar, is about consolidating the distinct sense of leadership Díaz offers, built from government rather than opposition. “This is not just about her more measured leadership style or her capacity to dialogue with other sectors of society, but primarily that for the first time since Spain’s transition to democracy [in the 1970s], the political space to the Left of PSOE is seen as being able to govern,” her senior advisor tells Jacobin. “In Yolanda we have a figurehead with a clear ministerial record who people trust.”
Coming Out Ahead
A year out from elections, Díaz’s tactical shift of tone and focus looks to be paying off in the polls — though Unidas Podemos has also had to swallow a series of very uncomfortable government positions over the last year. These include a 26 percent (€2.5 billion) increase in defense spending in the wake of the Ukraine war, as well as Sanchez’s increasingly zero-tolerance approach to irregular immigration — under which dozens of asylum seekers were killed by Moroccan and Spanish police at the border of Spain’s North African enclave Melilla last June. The Left has also had to accept the PSOE’s lead on investment plans for Spain’s €140 billion in European COVID-recovery funds, based on a public-private partnership model, with the usual corporate giants looking set to reap the rewards.
Yet accepting the PSOE’s right to set the strategic lines of policy in such areas was a core part of the coalition deal Unidas Podemos signed in late 2019. The Left has, however, exerted leverage on significant legislation in the areas it holds portfolios — including labor but also in equality and social affairs — and ensured a more substantive response to the cost-of-living crisis. “In previous cases when the Spanish left was a junior partner in regional governments, it was difficult to identify what role it had played in those administrations, but in this government, it is very clear,” Podemos’ ex-head of organization Sergio Pascual tells Jacobin. “We are talking about increases in the minimum wage, new paid family leave, advances in labor rights and feminist and LGBT rights.”
In terms of the latter advances, Podemos equality minister Irene Montero has spearheaded an ambitious legislative agenda around expanding abortion rights, enacting new active consent legislation and a trans rights law — also making Spain one of the first countries in the world to provide paid leave for menstrual pain. On the cost-of-living crisis, Spain ended 2022 with the lowest inflation rate in the eurozone (at 5.5 percent, compared to an average 9.2 percent). This largely owed to the coalition’s intervention in the electricity market, with a partial cap introduced that decoupled prices from the soaring cost of gas, as well as the substantial reduction in transport fares. Both measures had been initially pushed by the Left and dismissed for months by PSOE.
“We were told you could not do it, that it was illegal, but finally we succeeded in regulating energy prices,” Díaz insisted recently. Indeed, since last June, Spain’s electricity prices, on average, have been 41 percent lower than Italy’s, 35 percent lower than Germany’s, and 25 percent lower than France’s. When added to this the record levels of social spending in this year’s budget (which was increased by 11 percent), the coalition has been able to draw a favorable parallel between its handling of the cost-of-living crisis and that of right-wing governments in the likes of the UK and Italy.
Furthermore, year-end data for 2022 showed a steep drop in the use of precarious short-term contracts due to Díaz’s labor law reform. Even as the Spanish jobs market surpassed pre-pandemic employment numbers, the level of temporary employment fell by a historic 7 percent in 2022 — offering greater job security to hundreds of thousands of employees. “There are two ways to do politics: either reducing rights and social protections or widening them,” Díaz asserted recently. “We are going to continue conquering rights and demonstrating this is a government for workers.”
Now with elections on the horizon, Díaz is attempting a balancing act of pointing to the incremental gains of the last three years as proof the Left can govern effectively while also seeking distance from PSOE through the promise of a much wider process of necessary reform. Though Sumar’s program remains a work in progress, she has flagged up several policy priorities for the new platform. Under the slogan “minimum wage, maximum rent,” the two immediate challenges facing Spain, according to Díaz, are combating income inequality and guaranteeing housing as a fundamental right. Longer-term goals include expanding democracy into the workplace and broadening social rights in areas like health care, to include free universal dental and optical care.
Yet Díaz’s focus on developing Sumar’s programmatic appeal during this initial rollout is also creating frustration among existing parties, particularly given her unwillingness to engage in parallel negotiations around these organizations’ role and the terms and make up of unity electoral lists. In particular, tensions with Podemos have been high since Díaz announced that Sumar would not stand in May’s local or regional elections, after the negative experience in last summer’s disastrous Andalusian elections where she had overseen the creation of a united left party list. “We are not yet a state-wide organization with the resources and capacities to arrange candidacies. Andalusia taught us not to engage in campaigns that we do not control,” her senior advisor explains.
But her decision to sit out the local and regional elections, which will, in part, set the tone for next December’s general election, has been met by dismay by Podemos. “Our activists don’t understand why she won’t go and support their campaigns,” a member of Podemos’s national leadership tells Jacobin. She continues:
It is basic logic that the Left’s candidate in the general elections and who has emerged from our political space would go and campaign for them or, at the very least, do something to promote left unity in places like Madrid and Valencia [where Más País and Unidas Podemos look set to run separate lists]. But it seems Yolanda wasn’t even interested in trying and in fact has distorted the issue further by publicly supporting the rival [left-wing] candidate in Valencia.
This situation, which is far from ideal, has to be understood in a wider context of strained relations between Díaz and Podemos. For Pascual, “with Iglesias’s hasty exit, there was no orderly renovation of the Left’s leadership. Podemos came out from the beginning and said Yolanda was its candidate [for the general elections] but she is not from Podemos.” This was done with the belief that the party’s alliance with Díaz and her dependence on Podemos MPs would ensure its continuing dominance in any process of reunification with Iñigo Errejon’s Más País and other regional groupings.
But, according to Pascual, “When Díaz then moved to distance herself and seek greater autonomy and a broader renovation of the left space, Podemos’s leaders realized it had given up most of its bargaining chips by endorsing her straightaway.” He describes a series of recent standoffs as, in part, about Podemos “demanding a VAR [a video replay in soccer]” so it can walk back its earlier endorsement and leave open the possibility of an alternative candidate, such as Equality Minister Montero.
First in the spring, Podemos took a strict antiwar line, with Iglesias, from his new position as a prominent broadcaster, publicly criticizing Díaz’s support for the government policy of sending offensive weapons to Ukraine. Then in fall, the parliamentary group was close to a breaking point over the Left’s nominees to the official body overseeing Spain’s judiciary. Díaz pushed for an alternative candidate to Podemos’s (who she believed would not gain the necessary parliamentary support), but with neither side willing to back down, the alliance was hours away from a split vote, which would have broken government discipline. It was only saved from such a public display of division when the right-wing Partido Popular pulled out of the parliamentary deal at the last minute and the agreement collapsed.
Unity or Barbarism
All leadership transitions are fraught affairs. In the Spanish left’s case, the lack of collective organizational structures and procedures to work out shared rules of the game has exacerbated tensions. “In Unidas Podemos we tended to rely on informal channels and punctual contacts between the formations which made up the space, as well as leaning on personal relationships,” Guijarro acknowledges. “This lack of institutionalization is costing us now.”
Currently Podemos is insisting on an “alliance of equals” between the two organizations while Díaz wants existing parties to integrate within the Sumar platform. From these positions any unity agreement, according to Pascual, will require some “humility” from Podemos, who will need to accept a certain loss of centrality in a new left arrangement, as well as “generosity” from Sumar in terms of meeting the party’s concerns and not being seen to impose its preferred model.
Yet, according to Guijarro, there is also an approaching deadline to achieve this, with any agreement for the general elections having to be reached before May’s local polls: “This needs to be resolved in advance. If we reach the local elections divided and without an accepted formula for the general elections, each of the parties that are standing will be seeking to assert its strength against the other to prove its weight, and it will be very hard to put this all back together.”
After the promising Prisa poll, public tensions have dropped somewhat, as it became clear that left unity under Díaz could translate into historic gains. But the underlying power struggle remains unresolved. And the stakes could not be higher. With the progressive and right-wing electoral blocs evenly poised, the election is likely to be decided by who finishes third behind PSOE and the Partido Popular — i.e., either the Left or the far-right Vox. A united electoral front could mean a second term with a much more favorable balance of power for the Left at cabinet. Division would likely see far-right Vox leapfrog into third and a hard-right government in Spain. As journalist Daniel Bernabé put it: “Señora Yolanda Díaz, Señor Pablo Iglesias, be responsible and talk!”