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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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New politics soon turns into old politics

Published by The i paper (29th April, 2019)

Five years ago, a new force arrived in Spanish politics. Podemos emerged from massive anti-austerity protests in a nation badly hurt by the financial meltdown and the bursting of a housing bubble. It promised to transform politics and painted itself as radical alternative to the pair of parties that monopolised power after Spain’s post-Franco return to democracy. Its rise was spectacular, winning five seats in European elections four months after its founding and shooting to top of the polls. Pablo Iglesias, its pony-tailed leader, was hugely popular and hailed as fresh contrast to his rivals.

How times change.

The party that almost stole the leadership of Spain’s left from Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists heads into the latest election in disarray. Podemos is predicted to lose perhaps half of its deputies while Sanchez is expected to emerge stronger. Podemos has suffered infighting, fragmentation and been criticised for compromise and deals in local government. Iglesias attracted scorn after buying a costly house with his partner, the party spokeswoman. So unless the polls are wildly wrong, its best hope is to emerge as junior partner of the party it once sought to replace.

Podemos stands as a symbol of modern politics in this time of populism inflamed by social media. It was the star of the European far-left, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn among excited admirers. The name means ‘We Can’. But it turned out they can’t change the inherent nature of politics.

The party was normalised when it attained any power, forced to place pragmatism over purity when faced with policy decisions and struggled to bind together disparate individuals and divergent views. Its leaders were exposed as fallible human beings, not new-age icons. And voters saw that for all its bold rhetoric, it did not break the system but became subsumed.

Note how quickly ‘new politics’ becomes old hat. This is the third Spanish election in less than four years. Now the new kid on the political block is Vox, a far-right group set for national breakthrough in a land many thought immune to such populism due to painful recent memories of nationalist dictatorship. It emerged as a player five months ago in what El Pais dubbed the ‘Andalusian earthquake’, winning seats in local elections with Podemos among the big losers despite being on the opposite extreme. About one-third of Vox supporters are younger voters hungry for change.

This offers a vital lesson for Western democracies. Many are seeing their systems struggle under assault from new parties – and not just at extremes. The rise of Podemos coincided with another new ‘Citizens’ party in the centre, which lured young moderates and has since shifted right.

Such parties threaten traditional forces in two party systems, historic coalitions often reflecting the struggle between capital and labour. They tended to hold together and tack towards the centre despite personal rows and pressure from extremes due to difficulties of challenging them. But suddenly they look like dusty relics in these disruptive times, treating voters with contempt as they demand tribal loyalty.

In Britain, some were fooled in 2017 by the two big parties winning their biggest combined vote for almost half a century after steady erosion of vote share. But now the Tories are in Brexit-induced meltdown: their leader is clueless, stubborn and weak, a lethal mix, while her feuding party has abandoned its core principles of pragmatism and economic competence. The launch of Nigel Farage’s vanity party may finally force it to choose between chucking out zealots or driving out disgusted moderates.

Labour is little better – riven with division, dogged by anti-Semitism and led by a political dinosaur. Parliament is left paralysed with shifting alliances made in a desperate effort to escape the mess, and no focus on crushing societal problems.

Meanwhile, in the United States many Republicans despise their dreadful president while the Democrats are locked in multi-player combat over how to defeat Donald Trump that exposes deep ideological divisions. More than two-thirds of dissatisfied US voters want a third party to assail their stumbling, cash-addled system. Yet one sizeable chunk wants a party to the left of the Democrats, another seeks a new party to the right of the Republicans and the remainder want a moderate force to emerge in the middle. And here lies the crucial issue for our dysfunctional democracies.

I have reported on recent elections from France through to Sweden and the US and write this after talking to Spanish voters in Madrid and Almeria. Again and again I hear the same things: politicians cannot be trusted, they sell out, they are only in it for themselves. The fury is often rooted in genuine economic and political failure, generally infused with local flavours such as the Catalonia crisis or nostalgia that fuelled Brexit.

And certainly political systems based on ancient alliances make little sense in a post-industrial age when citizens are consumerist, countries riddled with cultural strife and charismatic figures can easily exploit anger on social media. Yet even experienced politicians in Change UK struggle to live up to their name, dismally failing their first test over election pacts with parties in similar space. For this plethora of new parties highlights a profound problem as voters reflect diverse hopes on new forces.

Yes, we need to make drastic and urgent reforms to outdated systems to accommodate more voices in power. Politicians should have principles. But democracy depends on compromise since we live in lands filled with millions of opinionated people. And progress demands the relentless slog of chipping away at problems. Instead we see instant solutions promised by people selling the sunshine of sudden change when, like it not, we cannot reform political reality. For proof, just look at Podemos.

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