The great Spanish hope: reflections on the 2016 Podemos party conference in Madrid

At first glance, Universidad de Podemos feels like any other rag tag left-wing meeting. People meander about in ripped jeans and trainers and sit around smoking roll-ups, the conference itself is disorganised (I got lost for a couple of hours after being sent to the wrong building), banners adorn the walls and political T-shirts are on sale at ramshackle stalls. Anyone who went to the People’s Assembly meeting in central London would feel instantly at home.

But it’s when you dig deeper that the differences reveal themselves. Universidad de Podemos is not the official party conference; it’s a gathering to educate Podemos members in politics, economy and strategy – and here is where Podemos marks itself out from other leftwing movements.

Instead of focusing on the policies needed in Spain, Podemos activists obsess over the gaps on the Spanish left that need to be filled – in this case, political education. The aim here is clearly to build a long-term movement, and Universidad de Podemos is just one strand of a wider, and remarkably focused, political project to permanently transform the Spanish left.

There is little dispute about what policies are needed to transform the Spanish economy – Podemos members seem to agree on those. Rather, debates are centered upon strategy and messaging: how does one bring ordinary people into Podemos and convince them to buy into the party’s vision? Why has the left been failing so far?

One of Podemos’s key focuses is inclusivity, and this is obvious from the Universidad de Podemos. There is a crèche – as there is at every Podemos event, one activist tells me – and it’s not uncommon to see women breastfeeding in sessions. There is a wide range of ages present at the conference, and everyone gets together at the end of the evening to drink and dance – unlike British political events where people drift off when the debating is over.

The whole thing feels youthful, and of course very Spanish: activists sit around in the evening sunlight drinking beer (which isn’t great, but the cheap coffee might be the nicest I’ve ever tasted), much like the students who hang out at the Plaça del Sol in Barcelona after dark. This is another part of the appeal of Podemos; it’s fun, and it feels like a community. It doesn’t feel like you have to be a political headbanger to be involved.

But it’s also obvious that Podemos is at a crossroads. Lots of people at the Universidad de Podemos were talking anxiously about a disagreement between two of the party’s main figureheads: Iñigo Errejón and Pablo Iglesias. On the one hand, Errejón wants the party to modify its language (though not its policies) in order to appeal to a wider section of the Spanish public.

Indeed, there is evidence that the party has already made moves in this direction – hearts form part of Podemos branding, and t-shirts talk of happiness and hope, and it was clear that many conference attendees were not just dipping their toes in the political water. On the other, Iglesias wants the party to return to its radical roots.

This is also understandable – many of the conference attendees come from the radical left; some seem distinctly unimpressed by the idea of moderating themselves to appeal to a wider audience. The more radical attendees may be furthest away from the general public in terms of their politics, but they’re the ones that movements like Podemos often rely on to actually turn up and do the work. They need to be handled with care. Thus, the brewing ideological differences in Podemos won’t be easy to solve, and they go right to the heart of how the party organises and what or who it is for.

The great hope of Podemos is the incredible team of young, smart activists who have coalesced around it. Their nous, speed and thoughtfulness compensates for the party’s lack of resources. They understand politics, they lack ego, they’re interested in strategy, and they work hard.

Thinking there must be some kind of grand PR machine behind the party, I asked Head of Discourse Jorge Moruno what infrastructure he has. He looked bemused for a second and replied “none. We don’t have infrastructure.” What he has, and what Podemos has in droves, is talent. The laser-like focus of those working within the party, like Moruno, is almost intimidating. It is this talent and energy that gives Podemos a fighting chance of achieving its aims, even though the road ahead might well get bumpy.

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