Catalonia: ‘Let’s Win Barcelona’ lays down unity challenge for left

The school hall in which the launch of "Let's Win Barcelona" took place was packed, with over a thousand forced to watch proceedings from outside and 5000 more looking on via video link

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By Dick Nichols

July 10, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, and earlier, shorter version appeared in Green Left Weekly -- If anyone can get the different forces of the Catalan left to unite in support of a common cause, it is Ada Colau. On June 26, Colau, until early May the spokesperson of the anti-eviction Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH) and almost certainly the most popular and respected social activist in the Spanish state, launched the platform “Let’s Win Barcelona” (Guanyem Barcelona) for the May 2015 municipal elections in the Catalan capital.

The school hall in which the launch took place was packed, with over a thousand forced to watch proceedings from outside and 5000 more looking on via video link. People from Barcelona’s myriad movements of social resistance and community-based activism were there in strength.

So too was the Catalan political left, including leading figures 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”. Recently elected European MPs of Podemos, the explosive success story of the May 25 European elections, were also present.

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, basic democratic rights for all and a broadly representative ticket that goes beyond “an acronym soup” of existing organisations. The goal is to collect 30,000 signatures by September 15, with at least half of these coming from Barcelona residents. At the rate at which support is coming in at the time of writing (over 1000 signatures a day with 15,000 already collected), that target should 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 interview with El País, Ada Colau spelled out how Let’s Win Barcelona would be different from a normal local government election campaign:

It is not a numerical issue of councilors: 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 currently rule the city.

If there’s one thing that Barcelona can boast it’s 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 fire fighters battling public service cuts; local groups opposing the gentrification of their neighbourhoods; collectives like those supporting a guaranteed minimum income or opposing the privatisation of the Old Port for mega-yachts.

There were anti-racist activists demanding the closure of the local refugee detention centre; campaigners for public housing and rational urban development; 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 reduction in public transport fares; parents opposing the closure of day-care centres … the list goes on and on.

For Ada Colau and her co-presenters, labour lawyer Jaume Asens, neighbourhood activist Gala Pin, academic and political commentator Joan Subirats and lecturer in political science Natalia Rosetti, the central idea is to harness all this energy into a united project—a sort of Podemos for Barcelona. Stressing that this was not “the Ada Colau campaign”, the former PAH spokesperson said:

The idea is not to create a superstructure parallel to what exists, but to strengthen what exists... The idea is to organise so as to unite forces; give prominence to—not supplant—those who are building the city we want.

Moreover, the council’s demolition of an occupied building functioning as a civic centre in a popular neighbourhood has provoked a wave of protest and brought it into greater discredit, as has a recent decision to upgrade the posher shopping area while cutting funding to housing and urban renewal in poor neighbourhoods.

“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 also acknowledged that “we are part of a larger process, which includes the CUP and Constituent 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, whose approach the Constituent Process parallels, 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).

Challenges and issues

What chances 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 remotely stable majority alliance. That’s because Catalonia is where support for the Spanish two-party system has collapsed most and Barcelona city where that collapse is most advanced, but also where any viable left alternative is yet to emerge.

According to Gesop, the right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) presently running Barcelona Council would lose seats but still win a relative majority with 11 or 12. The Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC, the social-democratic PSOE’s Catalan affiliate) and PPC would be the biggest losers, respectively down from 11 seats to 6/7 and 9 to 5/6, but their losses would be spread across the coalition of ICV and EUiA (one or two seats extra), the CUP (four seats extra), the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (two or three extra) and Citizens, the “clean and modern” Spanish-centralist alternative to the right-wing Popular Party (four seats extra).

However, if Let’s Win Barcelona manages to develop a single ticket uniting all parts of the “political left” and the “social left”, that scenario would surely be transformed. First, because the Gesop poll also reported that 57% of interviewees were yet to really make up their mind. Second because an enthusiastic campaign would cut back the 50% abstention rate of the last election (2011), potentially producing a “Podemos effect”.

In such a scenario the support for a Let’s Win Barcelona ticket would exceed that for its component parts, potentially making it the largest force in the council, with the weight to force the ERC, presently tilted towards forming a nationalist bloc with CiU, to negotiate with it.

The 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, as summarised in its Statement of Principles and Commitments. 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—leading 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: “I live in [portside] Barceloneta, and no longer recognise my neighbourhood. It seems they are selling it.” A migrant woman: “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: “To eat I have to go to a soup kitchen.”

The detailed elaboration of the platform’s program still lies in the future, but the 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 non-performing officials.

Let’s Win Barcelona also proposes to support the Catalan right to decide on its political relationship with the Spanish state, but without taking a position for or against Catalan independence. Colau spelled out the position in her interview with El País:

Let’s Win is really for the right to decide, on November 9 [date of the consultation on the political future of Catalonia] but also on other issues… We distrust formations like CiU, which preaches the right to decide for Catalonia, but has not exercised it or has prevented it elsewhere. CiU scorned the Popular Legislative Initiative [on a guaranteed minimum income] in Catalonia; it failed over the appointment of the new Spanish monarch, against the right to decide of Spain’s citizenry.[i]

The detailed process for preselecting its candidates is still to be worked out, but the general approach will most likely be neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood open primaries, with existing councillors from left parties having to compete with other candidates

Left unity?

The desire for left unity as the backbone of a broader progressive unity is very strongly felt in Barcelona today. EUiA coordinator Joan Josep Nuet, a committed supporter of Let’s Win Barcelona and of Ada Colau as the personification of its “new politics”, put the issue bluntly last week: “Unity is the only option. If we do it, we will triumph. If we don’t, they will triumph over us.”

Let’s Win Barcelona’s approach is to draw out via negotiation the “program of minima” that all forces would agree with. According to Colau:

Our message is very minimalist, to put democracy, human rights and common sense at the centre. It should be easy because this convergence is already happening. There are groups that would agree with these objectives (Podemos, the CUP, the Constituent Process) and there are other formations who need to be tested to see how far they want to go--groups like ICV or ERC.

We cannot say that they areregime’ because they have occasionally taken part in government. They have no entrenched corruption and do not have the same responsibility as the PP, PSOE and CiU for the rescue of the banking sector or policies of cuts. They have had their responsibilities in government and are we have criticised them for things they have done, but now they have the opportunity to redefine themselves: Are they really parties that want to change radically and commit to the new ways of doing politics that citizens are demanding? Or do want to stay on the side of the old regime and the big parties that pursue their own interests regardless of the citizenry?

Colau commented on existing tensions between left organisations:

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.

For EUiA’s Nuet:

We need to create a mix of what we are and what we want to be. Of the political forces that support a radical break and have organisation, structure and experience with the new social movements and political forces that have no experience, but have the power of novelty, protest and radicality in demanding specific changes. If this mix can be properly worked out it will create an explosion of positive proposals that will guarantee defeat of the old politics and the start of a new period.

The road ahead

An indication of the hurdles still to be jumped came four days after the launch of Let’s Win Barcelona, when the CUP issued a statement greeting the 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.”

From the ranks of the CUP the feeling against ICV derives from the period it was part of the “tripartite” Catalan government along with the PSC and ERC (2004-2010), part of which time it ran the interior ministry and the police force. The typical comment of CUP sympathisers on the social networks was: “Left unity yes, but without ICV-EUiA”.

Another strong sentiment within the CUP is that municipal politics is its area of speciality, a feeling intensified by its decision not to stand in the recent European election, but focus its energies on the project of radical, assembly-based municipalism. According to one CUP sympathiser:

CUP groups have been in politics for years, they have their social base and support on the ground and great experience in council politics, with more than 100 councilors in Catalonia…

Podemos, Let’s Win Barcelona and the Constituent Process are parties that come from the top down, with pretty faces and an attractive and striking manifesto but they have no social roots, they have no offices, they don’t have people who know the neighbourhood.

The response from supporters of Let’s Win Barcelona was not slow in coming. Answering the CUP statement, one social networker stated:

If the CUP want to join Let’s Win Barcelona they should be grateful for the good will shown to them, and not put stickers on people, or at least not do so because of their past, but for the program to be worked out now. I would suggest things need to worked out step by step, one thing at a time, a bit the Catalan way, little by little and looking to involve the maximum number of people.

When interviewed on Catalonia Radio, ICV Barcelona councillor Ricard Gomà conceded that the CUP had the right to its views of ICV’s past, but stressed that the two organisations 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 of four left tickets next May,” he added.

What form of unity would be best? For Goma Let’s Win Barcelona needs to be a coalition where each forces keeps its particular identity, but where all have their place and the contribution of each is recognised by all. ICV co-spokesperson Dolors Camats added: “We are prepared to talk about things without excluding anyone.”

Ada Colau’s remarkable capacity to bring very different people together in a common cause will be tested to the full in coming weeks. It can only be hoped she is successful, because a win for a rejuvenated left in Barcelona, home of so many massive popular struggles over the past century or more, would provide a very precious opportunity to show by example how a people-centred administration might work.

[Dick Nichols is Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s and Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]


[i] CiU parliamentarians in Madrid abstained on the motion, moved by left forces in the Spanish parliament, demanding the calling of a referéndum on the continuation of Spain’s Borbon monarchy.