The New Year brought an electoral cycle to Spain. The year-long campaign will run up to May 28 local and regional government contests and then to a general election to be held before January 2024, most likely in December.
Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a politician of multiple personae, has already chosen his role in this show as “The Workers’ Champion”.
In a January 31 head-to-head contest in the Senate with Alfredo Núñez Feijóo, leader of the right-wing People’s Party (PP) opposition, Sánchez said that the Spanish economy’s fundamental problem is that wages are too low, and its competitiveness based too much on Spanish labour’s cheapness.
A decade of falling real incomes were the responsibility of the neoliberal policies introduced after the 2008 financial crisis, and the behaviour of big business.
Sánchez attacked: “Some big companies increase their profits year after year, pay bonuses of millions of Euros to their executives, but do not raise their employees' salaries by a single cent.”
The PM, also president of the Socialist International, called for capital and labour to reach an agreement over wages.
Sánchez also stressed that the Spanish tax take as a percentage of gross domestic product is far below the European Union (EU) average and that “big business and the rich will have to pay their share”.
War on welfare state
Sánchez’s other theme was the need to reverse the privatisation of health, education and welfare provision: “The problem is that the social majority of our country is increasingly having to spend a greater proportion of its income on private spending for services that were previously provided by the public sector. And what this is doing is making us poorer and less free."
He pledged: “We are not going to permit that there be a health system for the poor and another for everyone else, an education system for the poor and another for the rest.”
In contrast, the right and far right (the xenophobic and racist Vox), “have a plan to undermine the welfare state, to turn people’s rights into commodities. A plan designed by the economic elites to maximise their own profits, and to be implemented by the right in the jurisdictions where they govern, with one clear goal: that public services deteriorate, and workers must move to private health, education, transport and pensions”.
Announcing an increase in the minimum wage to €1080 a month, Sánchez added: “I want the men and women of Spain to know that our struggle to improve conditions for workers and achieve a fairer distribution of business profit has only just begun.”
As he spoke, the PM would have sometimes sounded to the voters of Unidas Podemos (UP) — the junior, more radical, partner in his government — as one of their own.
How the left wins
The chameleonic Sánchez has adopted the persona of battler for the workers because it gives the PSOE the best chance of overcoming the three main obstacles to its remaining in government: the PP gets cornered as a puppet of the rich, the Catalan independence struggle gets marginalised, and continuing PSOE hegemony within the left gets secured.
In Spanish general elections, the right can be beaten, provided one condition is fulfilled — enough potential left voters come out on election day.
Since right-wing voters are more disciplined (the richer the suburb the higher the participation rate), the result of Spanish general elections comes down to how many people in working-class neighbourhoods see a point in voting.
Victory has come in the past when the PSOE could point to reforms improving working conditions and social rights, especially when it could convince voters that abstention would put these at risk.
“If you don’t go [to vote], they’ll be back!” said the successful campaign slogan of former PM José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, after his first-term government, while riding high on a huge real estate bubble, introduced laws against domestic violence, facilitating divorce and legalising same-sex marriage.
After the bubble burst, Zapatero was destroyed by austerity and labour “reform” adopted at the behest of the European Union. By 2011, the PSOE vote had crashed from 45% to 28.5%.
Gains yes, but enough?
Sánchez enjoys more favourable conditions. The most important being the EU suspension of rules on member state budget deficits and its €750 billion Next Generation post-COVID recovery and European Green New Deal programs.
These have allowed the PSOE-UP to preside over rising employment (now at 2007 levels) and a wide range of social programs. Social spending has increased 45% over the three years of the administration, epitomised by a 46.9% increase in the minimum wage.
The €45 billion dedicated to this “social shield” has financed measures like free or highly discounted rail travel and income and energy subsidies, combined with progressive laws in areas like transgender rights, euthanasia and sexual violence.
However inadequate these policies have been — with UP inside government, Spain lacks a visible radical force capable of developing a rigorous left critique of and comprehensive alternatives to them — they have saved the PSOE from repeating its 2011 wipe-out.
On average, polling shows the party trailing the PP by 4.5% compared to a 15% lag at the beginning of 2011, with the right bloc winning a narrow Congress majority
Closing the gap
The PSOE plan for mobilising the vote to close this gap dictates maximum product differentiation from the PP: not tax cuts but plans to bring Spain up to the European average in health, education and welfare spending; endless bragging about social measures already adopted and the threat to them posed by the right; and permanent association of the PP with Vox.
Sánchez’s Senate speech set the tone: “We could all live without Vox. Women would live better, the journalists they single out [for harassment], the Spaniards who speak another language and the immigrants they stigmatise with their hate speeches.
“Even the PP would live better without Vox, although at first it would cost them some town halls and autonomous communities [state governments], but it would improve their image and they could behave like a European democratic party and stop attending demonstrations to chant Vox’s slogans.”
The vulnerable PSOE flank that is the“Catalan threat to Spanish unity” is being defended by the incantation that “2023 is not 2017”, a mantra that the deep and seemingly chronic divisions in Catalan independentism make credible.
More dangerous — ironically — is that the vote to the PSOE’s left will shrink, due to divisions between Podemos and the new political initiative called Sumar (“adding up”) launched by labour minister and second deputy PM Yolanda Díaz.
While Díaz is parliamentary head of the UP coalition — of Podemos, the United Left and various smaller formations — she has been piloting Sumar as a project for developing a 10-year plan for Spain based on “listening to what ordinary people want”. Her “listening meetings” are presently taking place across Spain.
This operation is creating severe tensions with Podemos, up to now hegemonic to the left of the PSOE. They are personified in a falling out between Díaz and former UP leader Pablo Iglesias, so acrimonious that the PSOE worries that separate Podemos and Sumar tickets in December could cut the total left vote enough to hand victory to the right.
Has Spanish big capital reacted in horror at Sánchez’s rhetoric? Despite the occasional whinge, mainly from obscenely profitable banks required to pay an extra gains tax, all the “big players” grasp that his performance represents no threat to them.
The prospect of nationalising or even imposing French-style regulation on the country’s predatory finance and energy companies remains zero: the former will get an occasional rap over the knuckles, the latter will continue to roll in their billions of “green” EU funding.
The big real estate concerns will be irritated if the housing law presently being negotiated within the government gets adopted, but their death grip on the housing market will remain, along with real estate prices that devour half or more of the working-class incomes that Sánchez has pledged to protect.
And foreign policy? The day after his eloquent Senate speech, Sánchez was in Morocco seeking favours from its corrupt monarchy. The offensive term “Western Sahara” never passed his lips.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent. A more detailed version of this article will appear on the web site of Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]