If anyone can get the different forces of the Catalan left to unite in support of a common cause, it is Ada Colau. The spokesperson of the anti-eviction Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH) until early May, Colau is almost certainly the most popular and respected social activist in the Spanish state.
On June 26, Colau launched Let’s Win Barcelona platform for next year's May municipal elections in the Catalan capital.
The launch was packed, with more than 1000 people forced to watch proceedings from outside and 5000 more viewing via video link. People from Barcelona’s myriad movements of social resistance and community-based activism were strongly represented.
So too was the Catalan political left, including leaders from Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), the United and Alternative Left (EUiA, Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left), the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP), and the Constituent Process, a platform whose goal is “to articulate a united bloc in support of a change in [Catalonia’s] institutional and social model”.
Podemos, the new left group that was the explosive success story of the May 25 European elections, was also represented.
Four basic points
Let’s Win Barcelona has been launched with an internet-based check of the level of social support for its four basic points ― guaranteed social rights, a new economic model for the city, democratic rights for all and a broadly representative ticket that goes beyond “an acronym soup” of existing groups.
The group's goal is to collect 30,000 signatures in support by September 15, with at least half of these coming from Barcelona residents.
With a rate of 1000 signatures a day and 14,000 already collected by July 3, that target will present no problem.
The platform aims, in the words of its manifesto, “to build a joint candidacy that represents the majority, with the aim of winning. A candidacy that inspires enthusiasm, is present in the neighbourhoods, in the workplaces, in the cultural community, and that allows us to transform the institutions to serve the people.”
In a June 29 El Pais interview, Colau spelled out how Let’s Win Barcelona would be different from a normal local government election campaign, saying: “It is not a numerical issue of councillors: you can win and change the balance [on council] but not affect the relationship between the institutions and powers-that-be.
“Without citizen mobilisation, you cannot talk about winning Barcelona. It is up to the active citizenry to generate a counter-weight to the financial institutions and large companies that now rule the city.”
If there is one thing Barcelona can boast it is an “active citizenry”: they packed out the Let’s Win Barcelona launch.
There were the anti-eviction PAH fighters in their green t-shirts; the yellow-jacketed pensioner flying picketers known as iaioflautes; representatives from the influential Federation of Neighbourhood Associations; nurses, teachers and firefighters battling public service cuts; local groups opposing the gentrification of their neighbourhoods; and collectives such as those supporting a guaranteed minimum income or opposing the privatisation of the Old Port.
There were anti-racist activists demanding the local refugee detention centre be closed; campaigners for public housing; promoters of Barcelona’s network of public market gardens; defenders of squats that have been turned into alternative civic and cultural centres; campaigners for a cut in public transport fares; parents opposing the closure of day-care centres ― and many more.
For Colau and her supporters, the aim is to harness all this energy into a united project ― a sort of Podemos for Barcelona.
“Right now the struggle for the right to housing is being done by citizens, not institutions,” she said. “It is the citizenry that has organised without resources, has stopped evictions, has negotiated with banks … things they told us were impossible.
“The educational community is super-organised. Doctors are making quality public health possible despite the cuts. It’s a matter of giving prominence to these groups.”
Colau acknowledged that “we are part of a larger process ... a movement that understands that politics doesn’t mean a vote every four years: either we involve everyone or we cannot talk about democracy.”
This was a reference to the local assembly-based “bottom-up” strategy of the CUP. The Constituent Process also pushes this strategy, but without the CUP’s commitment to Catalan independence and the eventual reunification of the Catalan Lands (Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Roussillon in south-eastern France).
What chance does Let’s Win Barcelona realistically have? The latest Gesop poll for the 41-seat Barcelona Council (published on May 21, before the emergence of Podemos) predicts a very fragmented result, with no stable majority alliance.
That’s because support for the Spanish two-party system has collapsed most in Catalonia, where a viable left alternative ihas also yet to emerge.
Polls suggest the right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU), now running Barcelona council, would lose seats but still win a relative majority with 11 or 12 seats. The Socialist Party of Catalonia and the People's Party Catalonia (local afiliates of Spain's two main parties) would be the biggest losers, down from 11 seats to six or seven and nine to five or six respectively.
However, gains for other groups from these losses would spread around the coalition of ICV and EUiA (one or two extra seats), the CUP (four extra seats), the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (two or three extra seats) and Citizens (the “clean and modern” Spanish-centralist alternative to the PPC, which stands to win four extra seats).
However, if Let’s Win Barcelona developed a single ticket uniting all parts of the “political left” and the “social left”, that scenario would be transformed.
First, because the Gesop poll reported that 57% of interviewees were yet to make up their mind. Second, because an enthusiastic campaign would cut the 50% abstention rate of the 2011 election.
Moreover, the council’s demolition of an occupied building functioning as a civic centre in a popular neighbourhood has provoked a wave of protest. A recent decision to upgrade the posher shopping area while cutting funding to housing and urban renewal in poor neighbourhoods has further discredited the body.
Issues that Let’s Win Barcelona will have to address are those felt in the lives of its working people, poor, students, pensioners, immigrants and outcasts.
At their root lie cuts to public services, unemployment and poverty, combined with the snapping up of relatively cheap Barcelona real estate by foreign money. This has led to a widening gap between the suburbs of the wealthy and the degraded neighbourhoods of the poor and marginalised.
In a short Let’s Win Barcelona video, the voices of the city speak. An older resident says: “I live in [portside] Barceloneta, and no longer recognise my neighbourhood ― it seems they are selling it.”
A migrant woman says: “The difference between you and me is a piece of paper ― if I get sick I have no right to see a doctor.” An unemployed worker adds: “To eat I have to go to a soup kitchen.”
A detailed elaboration of the platform’s program still lies in the future, but its method is already clear ― citizen empowerment through maximum decentralisation of decision making, a participatory budget process, a limit on salaries of elected officials and time in office and right of recall of any officials.
Let’s Win Barcelona also proposes to support the Catalan right to decide, but without taking a position for or against Catalan independence.
The process for preselecting candidates is still to be worked out, but the general approach will most likely be neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood open primaries. Existing councillors from left parties will have to compete with other candidates.
The desire for left unity as the backbone of a broader progressive unity is strongly felt in Barcelona. EUiA coordinator Joan Josep Nuet, a committed supporter of Let’s Win Barcelona, put the issue bluntly: “Unity is the only option. If we do it, we will triumph. If we don’t, they will triumph over us.”
Colau commented on existing tensions between left groups: “The CUP has its red lines and ICV has its. We insist that differences turned into a barrier condemn us to impotence in the medium and long term.
“The citizens are demanding courage and generosity. It's time to prioritise what unites us, because the life of citizens is at stake.”
An indication of hurdles still to be jumped came four days after the launch. The CUP issued a statement greeting the Let’s Win Barcelona initiative, but adding: “We view with many reserves and much reticence the involvement of ICV … We consider that this political formation has been actively responsible for the Barcelona model and the forms of ‘doing politics’ that we want to overthrow.”
The typical comment of CUP sympathisers on social networks was: “Left unity yes, but without ICV-EUiA.”
Interviewed on Catalonia Radio, ICV councillor Ricard Goma conceded the CUP had the right to its views of ICV’s past, but stressed that the two groups were already working together to defend the neighbourhoods, and that on this basis unity was possible.
“Imagine what the impact will be if we confront the citizens with three or four left tickets next May,” he added.
ICV co-spokesperson Dolors Camats said: “We are prepared to talk about things without excluding anyone.”
Colau’s remarkable capacity to bring very different people together in a common cause will be tested to the full in coming weeks.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal]