Spain: 'Barcelona Together' and the fight for people-first city councils

Conversation in the Reina Sofia Museum Square, Madrid, attended by various left coalitions standing in the May 24 municipal polls.

By Dick Nichols, Barcelona

May 21, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- A commentator for the mainstream Barcelona daily La Vanguardia reported in its May 9 edition on a conversation in a lift that he had overheard between two “executives of a certain age”.

They were talking about an opinion poll giving the radical, movement-based ticket “Barcelona Together” and its mayoral candidate, housing rights activist Ada Colau, the lead in the March 24 contest for the Barcelona City Council. On that day elections will also be held in all municipalities in the Spanish state, as well as in 13 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities (states).

Executive A: “Have you seen that [incumbent Barcelona mayor Xavier] Trias is losing?”

Executive B: “Yes, Colau is winning.”

Executive A: “Trias doesn’t listen. He says yes to everything and then goes his own way.”

Executive B: “Trias will win, but he’s had a shock-and-a-half today.”

Executive A: “And if Colau wins, Barcelona’s sunk.”

That’s what moneyed Barcelona says when it thinks no one is listening.

The same note of panic appeared in a May 12 speech that Trias (“everybody’s lord mayor”, according to his campaign motto) gave in the well-off Barcelona suburb of Sarrià:

Some people are wondering whether to vote People’s Party [PP, the ruling party in the Spanish State], some are thinking about Citizens [the new, “youthful”, Spanish-centralist outfit now rising in opinion polls], some are saying "maybe these, maybe those".

Come on people, concentrate! If we go on like this, we could get a surprise that nobody wants!

For Trias, the only guarantee against “the surprise that nobody wants” is to stop dispersion of the conservative vote by concentrating it on his own party, the right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU), which also governs in Catalonia.

A later GESOP poll (May 10) put CiU back in the lead over Barcelona Together, but only by 22.6% to 18.9%. They are followed by the Party of Socialist of Catalonia (PSC, Catalan sister organisation of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, PSOE) on 14.6%, the PP on 12.6%, Citizens on 12.1%, the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) on 10.2% and the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP) on 5%.

However, Trias has no room for complacency. That’s because 25.7% of the electorate has yet to decide whether to vote, because Colau consistently registers as the most valued mayoral candidate and because Barcelona Together’s public meetings have been drawing the biggest, and most enthusiastic, crowds.

The nerves in the CiU camp would have got another jolt on reading a March 14 Metroscopia poll that had Barcelona Together ahead of CiU by 27% (12 seats) to 22% (10 seats) in the 41-seat city council, meaning that the radical coalition would have first go at forming an alliance for governing Barcelona.

Such a result would put the ERC and the PSC on the spot, because the last thing they want, each for their own reasons, is to be junior partners to Barcelona Together. Far better to be “constructive opposition” to mayor Trias.

Thus, as we enter the last week of the campaign, the PSC campaign slogan has become, “This is a fight between Trias and Colau? Don’t kid us!” and the ERC has taken to painting Barcelona Together as opponents of the Catalan nationalist cause.

A good measure of the state of CiU nerves is that Josep Duran i Lleida, the leader of its parliamentary fraction in the Spanish parliament, has reached into the PP box of dirty tricks—usually treated with disdain in Catalan politics—and linked Barcelona Together with Venezuela (“a failed model with more deaths than Iraq”).

On May 18, readers of the Barcelona daily El Periódico would have been surprised to find that Catalan premier Artur Mas had taken time out from affairs of state to pen an opinion piece that painted Barcelona Together—not mentioned by name—as a threat to business confidence, investment and jobs, not to mention welfare state financing and a Catalan national struggle reliant on support from 95% of the country’s 947 councils.

The spreading challenge

All of which is so much slander and distortion, but what is the reality?

Barcelona Together arose from the same political need as the radical national formation Podemos, but at the level of local government. It aspires to give political voice to Barcelona’s many movements of protest against austerity and poverty, neglect of working-class neighbourhoods, privatisation of council services and rising pollution.

It stands for a people-driven, ecologically sustainable, democratically determined model of urbanisation, based on as high a level of neighbourhood and social movement participation as possible. This stands in sharp contrast to the CiU promotion of mass tourism, real estate speculation and playgrounds for the rich (like casinos and exclusive marinas for super yachts in the city’s Old Port).

The movement’s candidates were selected by a process of open primaries, while mayoral candidate Ada Colau is the highly respected former spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH), probably the most powerful social movement in the Spanish state.

Party because of Colau’s authority, Barcelona Together has also produced an unprecedented step forward in left and progressive unity. Beginning life as “Let’s Win Barcelona, which has now become a separate affiliate, Barcelona Together has brought under one umbrella five other left and progressive forces: Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and the United and Alternative Left (EUiA, the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left, IU), which together held five seats in the outgoing council, Podemos (which is not standing in its own name in the municipal elections), Equo (the all-Spanish greens party) and Constituent Process.

Constituent Process, associated with economist Arcadi Oliveres and Benedictine nun Teresa Forcades, is a 45,000-strong movement devoted to developing a detailed proposal for “the Catalan republic of the 99%”.

On the Barcelona left, this coalition-building leaves only the CUP running a separate campaign, called “Let’s Turn Barcelona Upside Down!”

Barcelona Together stands out as one of the high points in an all-of-Spain dynamic of grouping together forces to the left of the PSOE, even as it has proven impossible to forge similar unity between Podemos-aligned and United Left-aligned forces in many centres.

For example, in the urban “belts” surrounding Barcelona this is the case in important working-class centres like Cornellà, Badalona and Santa Coloma de Gramanet (in the last two Podemos has aligned with the CUP, while ICV-EUiA is basically running its own campaign).

However, tickets like Barcelona Together are also present in a string of other centres, in Catalonia and across the Spanish state. Barcelona Together has “twinned” itself with 37 similar coalitions, the best known of which are Madrid Now!, Valencia Together, Zaragoza Together, Aranzadi Pamplona, the Atlantic Tide (in Galician capital A Coruña) and Seville Participates.

In announcing the twinning, Ada Colau explained its basis as “those candidacies driven by the people, that have advanced on the basis of some type of citizen support, that have elected their candidates through primaries open to the citizens, that have a code of ethics and that endorse Barcelona Together’s manifesto and minimum positions.”

As a result of the formation of such candidacies, opinion polls are showing possibilities for victories for tickets to the left of the PSOE in A Coruña, the Valencian regional government and its capital Valencia and the autonomous community of Navarra and its capital Pamplona (part of the historical Basque region), as well as in a host of smaller centres.

Major cities in which Podemos and IU are standing together with other forces with a chance of victory are Zaragoza and A Coruña. In Galicia’s biggest city they have been joined by the left-nationalist Anova, the centre-left nationalist Commitment to Galicia, Equo, the Galician Ecosocialist Space and the Humanist Party.

In Madrid, Madrid Now, whose mayoral candidate is retired labour rights lawyer and judge Manuela Carmena, is closing the gap on the PP candidate Esperanza Aguirre, being on 27.8% to the PP’s 29.7% in the May 18 Metroscopia poll.

For the regional parliament of the Balearic Islands (Menorca, Mallorca, Ibiza and Formentera), the PP retains its position as most-voted party, but could be thrown out if left and centre-left forces, national and regionally based, can reach a pact for government.

In many cities and towns where the PSOE seems set to regain control from a PP shattered by corruption scandals, it will face a strengthened presence of forces to its left. Working-class towns in the greater Madrid region (like Getafe and Alcalá de Henares), traditionally run by the PSOE but which went to the PP in 2011, seem certain to return to the PSOE, but with parties and alliances to its left with a greater presence.

Some idea of the degree of concern that this alarming prospect is producing in the PP can be gauged from this May 10 quote from its attack dog Esteban Gonzalez Pons, leader of the PP fraction in the European Parliament. Sent to wake up the people of Navarra as to the disaster looming over their heads, Gonzalez Pons said (in language reminiscent of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War):

Everyone who doesn’t want an extreme left government knows that there are two options here: in these elections you have to choose between PP and popular front, the one meaning concord, progress and Europe and the other malice, revenge and the probability that Spain will end up looking like Greece—a political crisis that could lead to a new economic crisis.

Stopping Colau

With days to go before May 24, CiU, the ERC and the PSC are at full bore in their campaigns to stop Barcelona Together.

For their part, the PP and Citizens, while not in the least soft on Barcelona Together, are more focused on their own intense scrap for the anti-Catalan independence vote. This fight has gone to the lengths of Citizens launching a legal case to stop the Catalan national movement from using a major Barcelona road at its next Catalan national day rally (September 11).

The PP then trumped Citizens with a renewed attack on the use of Catalan as teaching language in Catalan schools: a conservative court ruled that 25% of teaching has to be in Castilian (Spanish) in two high schools because one family in each school had so requested.

José Ignacio Wert, the national PP minister for education and culture, let reporters in the national parliament know “off the record” that he thought Catalonia’s treatment of Castilian as a “foreign language” was equivalent to the suppression of Catalan under the Franco dictatorship.

Then another court ordered ruled in favour of a demand from the Spanish-unionist organisation Catalan Civil Society, ordering that the Catalan independence flag, the estelada, be taken down from town halls and other public buildings during the election campaign.

The PP is also fishing more shamelessly than in the past in the sewer of racism and xenophobia, to date most associated in Catalonia with Platform for Catalonia (PxC). The PP mayor of working-class Badalona, Xavier Garcia Albiol, who is notorious for his scapegoating of gypsy and Moslem communities and refugees, looks set to maintain or increase the PP majority in that city, running its campaign under the slogan “Cleaning Up Badalona”.

This piece of dog whistling, which allows PP spokespersons to maintain with a straight face that they are only referring to rubbish-collection and traffic management, has been taken up by Alberto Fernández Díaz, the PP mayoral candidate for Barcelona. He calls for the “cleaning up” of inner-city neighbourhood the Raval, supposedly in danger of becoming “an Islamic ghetto”.

At the PP’s final campaign meeting, Fernández Diaz summarised the PP approach in two phrases: “foreigners should fulfil their duties” and Barcelona should be “independent of estelades and anti-system people”. The PP faithful gave Fernández his biggest cheer when he promised to pull down half-demolished squat and social centre Can Vies, scene last year of clashes between its defenders and the police.

The CiU campaign is crude blackmail—Ada Colau is “business unfriendly” and will scare away investors and money-spinning events like the annual Mobile World Congress; 120,000 jobs are at risk. Trias‘ campaign has consisted in announcing new grand projects for Barcelona, challenging rival candidates to support them and then implying that they are job destroyers if they don’t.

The campaign of the PSC (“Barcelona’s left alternative”) has focused on trying to paint Barcelona Together as a dreamy party of protesters, as opposed to the practical and experienced PSC (which ruled Barcelona for 32 years). It has leaped gleefully on some of Barcelona Together’s more speculative suggestions—such as the issuing of a Barcelona-only currency to help foster local small and family businesses.

The PSC’s proposals are super-concrete (“1% of total investment to improve disabled access”, “a plan to finance completion of Metro Line 9 and La Sagrera station in 18 months”). However, its approach largely fails to address the main source of popular anger—not the absence of this or that project, important though these may be, but the growth of poverty, exclusion and feelings of powerlessness during the economic crisis.

PSC mayoral candidate Jaume Collboni may inveigh in Barcelona Together style against the growing emergence of “the two Barcelonas” and promise to shift spending from “the Barcelona of the posh” to “the Barcelona of the people”, but who doesn’t remember the PSC contribution to the ruling urban model? Trias himself delights in pointing out that the previous PSC-ICV administration approved the construction of four times as many luxury hotels as his regime has.

Over the past three years the PSC has also lost its openly Catalanist wing, which was associated with the mayoralty of Pascual Maragall (later to be Catalan premier) and was responsible for important improvements to the city in the years immediately before and after the 1992 Olympic Games. This wing abandoned the PSC in various splits, most of which are now running in alliance with the ERC.

Part of the PSC approach is to try to stir the tensions within Initiative for Catalonia, which for many years was its partner in governing Barcelona. A number of ICV members feel that the party had been too defensive about its record, and too silent when unjustly branded as being part of the “caste”. For years, the ICV and its predecessor, the United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), was the main conduit into the council of the demands and struggles of the working-class neighbourhoods and the shanty towns that three decades of PSC-ICV administration succeeded in transforming.

On May 18, Collboni said: “If Ada Colau wins on Sunday, Barcelona will be a trophy in [Podemos leader] Pablo Iglesias’s showcase”. Nonetheless, to date PSC attempts to stir discontent within the ICV with Barcelona Together—portrayed as an alliance between Colau and Podemos at the expense of a marginalised ICV—has had no effect.

This is partly because Barcelona Together has embraced the record of ICV and the PSUC for their work in organising in the working-class neighbourhoods during the Franco dictatorship years, expressed in organisational terms in the ongoing presence in Barcelona politics of the powerful Federation of Barcelona Neighbourhood Associations (FAVB).

Incidentally, it was after the FAVB’s traditional meet-the-candidates meeting, the effective campaign opener and televised for the first time ever, that we got an inkling of the support the Barcelona Together campaign was getting. As the debate continued and contrary to the usual pattern, the intensity of tweeting kept increasing, making comment on the debate the trending topic in all of Spain, even though discussion was conducted in Catalan. Most of the tweets expressed explicit or implicit support for Barcelona Together.

Republic Left (?) of Catalonia

As for the ERC—which presents May 24 mainly as an election about preparing Barcelona as capital of an independent Catalonia and flagship of municipal support for independence—its campaign has been struggling to find a credible pretext for preferring CiU to Barcelona Together.

This is especially the case because the minority CiU Catalan government relies for its survival on a non-aggression pact with the ERC, and because ERC and CiU are, so far, the only parties to have signed up to the road map to Catalan independence worked out between them and the Catalan National Congress, Omnium Cultural and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (the main mass nationalist organisations).

Alfred Bosch, the ERC’s mayoral candidate, said: “What I want to know is who is determining Ada Colau’s policy on Catalonia’s national rights—Cayo Lara [national coordinator of the all-Spanish United Left], Pablo Iglesias [who has been evasive as to whether Podemos would accept the September 27 Catalan election as a referendum on Catalan independence] or [ICV joint co-ordinator] Joan Herrera?”

Next, at a May 13 rally with Teresa Forcadell, Colau endorsed the Constituent Process’s formula of “a Catalan Republic of the 99%”.

That, however, was not enough for Bosch. On the following day the ERC candidate ruled out any alliance with Barcelona Together unless it specifically commits to voting for Catalan independence.This was despite the reality that many of the ERC’s concrete proposals for Barcelona (e.g., emergency anti-poverty plan, zero tolerance towards corruption, closure of illegal tourist establishments and spreading of the tourist presence more evenly across the city) are similar to Barcelona Together’s

Bosch got his answer at Colau’s May 8 mass rally with Pablo Iglesias, when she turned to the Podemos leader and said before the crowd, “We demand our right to decide and we want to exercise it now, we do not want to wait any longer (applause).”

It’s questionable whether its stance will win the ERC much extra support in a city where a majority of working people support a Catalan right to decide and even the formation of a Catalan state, but remain wary of taking the final step to independence before seeing how politics evolves in the rest of Spain.

The Barcelona Together campaign

The uniqueness of the Barcelona Together lies in the way its program was developed, not by sub-committees of experts, but through scores of local meetings and via the internet. Barcelona Together’s web site describes the role of the program in these words:

As against the programs made up of a list of atomised measures, a Common Program emphasises the search for those measures that prioritise the common good, that are capable of giving a timely answer to diverse concerns, and that presuppose a more efficient use of resources when it comes to satisfying the needs of the bulk of citizens....

A Common Program also stresses collective intelligence, through an exceptional participatory process that has enabled the involvement of thousands of people in the elaboration, discussion and prioritisation of its proposals.

A crucial aspect of a Common Program, however, is that it is not made up of a collection of electoral promises but contains a firm commitment that will guide our work on council, an indispensable process that will allow all citizens to look forward to becoming reinvolved in political life. That’s why the program includes the mechanisms that will be used to put it into practice and to render account of its implementation.

It is this approach that spurred the enthusiasm surrounding the Barcelona Together campaign, which has taken the double form of mass rallies and thousands of formal and informal local discussions. Through this process an entire layer of older activists, many from the days of the PSUC, have become reinvolved in political campaigning. In addition, while the CUP probably still attracts a majority of Barcelona’s younger left and progressive activists, a lot of youth have also become involved in Barcelona Together campaigning.

As May 24 approaches, Barcelona Together is focusing a great deal of effort in the working-class and popular suburbs where abstention has been highest in recent municipal polls. If it can find the support there to help pull off a win on March 24, Barcelona Together’s triumph will have reverberations well beyond Catalonia and well beyond Spain.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article has appeared in Green Left Weekly’s May 20 edition.