United Left National Convention: ‘This is the Spanish SYRIZA!’

On the last day of the 10th federal convention of the Spain's United Left (Izquierda Unida, IU), Juan Peña, young IU organization secretary for the Castilian town of Valladolid, summed up his view of the impact of the indignado (15M) movement on the IU, one of the oldest broad left formations in Europe: “15M brought IU good news and bad news. The good news was that our programmatic proposals hit the mark, shared by the people who poured into the streets. The bad news was that the people thought that these proposals were new, their own.”

Ever since the enormous and exceptional upsurge of protest that began in Spain on May 15, 2011, the 30,000-strong IU has been wrestling with this contradiction – the gap between the millions of people, including many members and supporters of the sociali-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), who share its positions but who don't regard the IU as their political voice.

It's not that the broad left coalition hasn't made gains during the social and political crisis. Support in opinion polls has more than doubled to around 13 per cent and the IU and its Catalan sister party, the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), have enjoyed big increases in regional elections in 2012 in Andalusia, Asturias, Galicia and Catalonia.

However, such gains account for a small part of the more than 6 million voters who have deserted the PSOE over the past four years. The basic picture is still one of serious erosion of the two-party system of the PSOE and the ruling right-wing People's Party (PP), but with no force yet emerging as the core of a radical left challenge to bipartisan capitalist politics.

Major Themes Discussed

How to transform the enormous upsurge of protest in the Spanish state into a political and social movement strong enough to take power out of the hands of the PP government of Mariano Rajoy was the overarching issue for the 959 convention delegates who met from December 14-16, 2012, in an outer suburb of Madrid. As the convention slogan said, “Transform: mobilization into organization, rebellion into alternative, alternative into power.”

Predictably, that meant the convention was a tame affair for the mainstream media. How dull was this! No faction fights, no personality clashes, only a handful of close votes – not much sustenance for the insatiable monster of raging abuse, rancid gossip and loud-mouthed moronic opinionizing that is ‘coverage of politics’ in most Spanish media.

How unlike, too, was it to the IU's ninth federal convention, held six months after the coalition and its allies had been reduced to two seats in the 2008 elections for the national Spanish parliament. That convention had seen five different slates presented for the federal political committee, the organization's ruling body between conventions. Whether the IU even had a future was widely discussed at the time. In the following years leading IU figures deserted to the PSOE and to the environmental party Equo.

The ninth convention had even failed to elect a new federal coordinator to replace resigning coordinator Gaspar Llamazares. At the first federal political committee meeting afterwards, Cayo Lara, from the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the IU's largest affiliate, had become the new federal coordinator with just 55 per cent of the vote.

The ninth federal convention had also begun the process of refounding the IU as an “anti-capitalist, federal and republican social and political movement as the axis of a new social and political convergence,” but now, four years later, with IU members participating in and often leading the huge waves of protest against austerity and attacks on labour rights, the mood of the organization was transformed.

As a result of this shift and the IU's electoral gains this convention was also in a position to ride through disputes that in a more sombre situation might have produced acrimonious conflict.

One of the tensest was the situation for IU in the Euskadi (the Basque Country), where its present and former local affiliates, respectively Esker Anitza (EA, Plural Left) and Esker Batua (EB, United Left), had run against each other in the October 2012 regional election, with neither winning a seat. Esker Batua is affiliated to the Open Left (IA), the IU-affiliated party founded earlier this year by Llamazares, and its election material featured photos of Llamazares and other leading IA members.

(Llamazares later denied that he had given permission to Esker Batua to use his photo, but said nothing at the time of the poll, leaving the impression that the IU's two main personalities, Lara and Llamazares, were supporting different tickets in the Euskadi poll. Partly as a result, a number of previous sympathizers of IA broke with the current.)

Another potential source of conflict, that the IA might present its own slate for the federal political committee, was resolved at the last minute when that formation negotiated 20 per cent representation on all IU leadership bodies. According to Llamazares: “We believe that's representative enough and we don't have any further ambitions. Moreover, it's not a question of percentages but of representative participation in IU as a whole, from top to bottom and bottom to top.”

The decisions of the convention, building on the support for its draft documents in the September meeting of the federal political committee, reflected this resolution of differences. Cayo Lara was re-elected unanimously as national coordinator after the presentation of only one slate for the federal political committee, the first time in 24 years. It represented all organized sensibilities within IU and won 85 per cent support.

Previously, Lara's balance sheet of work since the previous convention had won 91 per cent support, the political document 97 per cent support, the economic document 96 per cent support and proposals for restructuring the IU and amending its statutes 90 per cent support.

Near unanimous support greeted the “Declaration of Madrid,” a resolution summarizing the IU's view of Spanish and European politics and its tasks in the coming period, as well as specific resolutions, many from IU's different federations, which correspond to Spain's 17 “autonomous communities” and Ceuta and Melilla, its two enclaves in Morocco.

Main Challenges

The outgoing IU leadership had outlined four challenges and basic goals in its “Call for Debate” for the convention: to popularize a concrete economic alternative to neoliberalism; to “organize the democratic rebellion of the people”; to overcome the two-party system by “making IU and its alliances a real alternative for power”; and “to make profound changes to the IU we know … in order to transform it into a powerful political force for the left and the majority of society.”

It stressed that unless this last challenge was met it would be impossible to meet the first three: the IU would continue to be seen by many in struggle as alien and even part of “the political class,” at best a lesser evil on election day. The section of the political document headed “Profoundly changing our organization” called for an “internal revolution in IU.”

But how to meet that challenge? The concern with making the IU more hospitable for the new generation of activists was reflected in the huge number of amendments devoted to its statutes – more than 3200 of the 5500 total. Most were aimed at creating a less “institutional” IU: quicker to react and more organized in its support to social protest and resistance; providing greater opportunity for participation by sympathizers and activists in the social movements; and with greater transparency and accountability from public officeholders and elected officials.

However, some of the amendments would have transformed the IU into an assembly-based organization, even questioning the very concept of membership and, in the words of political document drafting panel reporter José Manuel Alonso, “placing in doubt the need for IU itself.” That would have taken the IU a very long way from its first response to the rise of 15M – the 2011 “Social Call,” a consultative process to provide a space for input into the IU's program for the November 2011 national elections.

Ranging between these poles, the convention debate centred on what interrelated changes were needed to the IU itself, to its relation to the social movements, and to its alliances with social and political forces outside its own borders – all essential in order to build toward a majority social and political bloc against neoliberal capitalism in the Spanish state.

A contribution from the IA said:

“The ‘they don't represent us’ [non nos representan, a 15M chant against the ‘political class’]… is a fundamental challenge for we left activists … our survival as a force for transformation is bound up with it … We should recognize ourselves in some of the criticisms of professionalized politics made from the social movements, and of which we are part. We are not outside or alien to what is being criticized and proposed.”

The IA's proposed treatment was that all social collectives and individuals interested in a particular issue be invited to policy-formulation meetings, that draft policy documents based on that input be submitted to members for discussion, and that social networks be used and the IU web system rejigged as channels for proposals and feedback.

Pre-selection of candidates should be via primaries open to IU members and declared supporters or, in the case of the candidacies of alliances beyond the IU, through mechanisms agreed with the partners in the alliance.

In his blog for the left web daily Público, IU MP for Málaga Alberto Garzón, popular indignado and youngest deputy in the national parliament, tried for a precise diagnosis of the IU's present condition.

“IU is not a conventional political party, even if it suffers from many of their vices, but a political and social movement. That's what its statutes say and that's how I personally reckon its role in society should be understood …

“However, the organization itself is structured internally with the rigidity and dynamics specific to a traditional party. And this state of affairs leads to a manifest inability to attract highly capable people who presently ‘travel’ outside the organization. In this situation the ‘insiders’ – namely, the people familiar with internal negotiation and the balance of forces among the different internal currents – usually end up prevailing over the ‘outsiders’ – namely, all those people who are potentially members but don't end up joining owing to the enormous barriers to entry.

“This is a problem that is separate from purely ideological confrontation but which once set hard within the organization ends up blocking the dynamic needed to maintain the right balance between action in the streets and in the institutions.

“The result is that the organization gets transformed into something much more conservative than what the struggle in the street and citizens in general are demanding. A disconnection from reality gets produced, along with a tendency toward political dependence on the institutions, which leads to other tools of struggle being formed alongside the organization.

“That's how we can understand that, despite clear ideological convergence, those who have carried out the most effective resistance against the neoliberal assault have been the social movements situated outside IU.”

A similar diagnosis was carried on the preconvention blog, “Going over the head of the regime.” In a statement that got wide support, Juan Peña, Eberhard Grosske (spokesperson of the IU council group in Palma, Mallorca) and Tánia Sànchez (MP in the Madrid regional parliament) outlined “ten messages that the Tenth Convention of IU must launch toward society.” These included, “We are going to start building tomorrow's society today,” “We are going to make a qualitative leap in social and political convergence,” “We are going to place the institutions at the disposal of the people” and “We are going to open our main decision-making to citizen participation.”

Opening Session

However, the discussion wasn't starting with a blank whiteboard – the IU had already accumulated valuable experiences since May 2011. These included:

  • Its broader alliance for the November 2011 national election, which gave rise to the Plural Left (IP) parliamentary caucus between its successful candidates and those of its allies elected from Initiative for Catalonia Greens-United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) and the Aragonist Union (CHA);

  • The spectacularly successful Galician Left Alliance (AGE), between IU Galicia, the left-nationalist ANOVA, Equo Galicia and the Galician Eco-socialist Space (EEG), the “Galician Syriza”;

  • The sixth national congress of its Catalan sister organization EUiA, which featured web-based input and discussion with sympathizers and space for engagement with major social movements, such as the Platform of the Mortgage-Affected (PAH) and those fighting cuts to public health and education;

  • Council election successes like that in Valladolid, where the program for the 2011 council elections was decided by open meetings including IU sympathizers, resulting in a doubling of IU's vote, an increase in its seats from one to three and a 25 per cent jump in membership.

In the convention's opening session differing assessments of the IU's present condition were expressed in reports from the regional federations that followed Cayo Lara's balance sheet of his four years as federal coordinator. Even while recognizing many gains and the welcome success of Lara and the federal leadership in composing differences, numerous speakers stressed the enormity of the challenge before IU.

Ramón Trujillo, coordinator of the IU federation of the Canary Islands, said that, while creating the anti-capitalist alternative to neoliberal austerity was inconceivable without the IU, its present condition should be stated for what it is: “not a social movement, but a limited electoral machine and an institutional political apparatus.” La Rioja coordinator Henar Moreno criticized the federal leadership for its inability to “stay one step ahead of the rising class struggle.”

Valencia coordinator Marga Sanz stressed that “we've got a long way to go on with regards to feminism and youth.” The reporter for Galicia, Carlos Portomeñe, pointed to the growing gap between the IU's vote and the size of its activist base, creating rising stress within an organization that is winning more and more respect and positions in institutions but not yet developing enough activists to use and service them.

On the positive side, Aragon coordinator Adolfo Barrena presented what the alliance achieved in that region between the IU, the Aragonist Union and the Social Initiative of Aragon as a valuable example of success in building broad left coalition.

Approach to the PSOE