New methods for new parties – learning from Podemos

The recent Podemos meeting in London gives us a lot of new ideas for party building, believes Joana Ramiro

People push through in order to get into the room and reserve their seat. There is a buzz of euphoric expectation blending with rapid chatter in Castellan. This is the start of a Podemos meeting but it could have been a rock gig for all we know. When panel speakers finish their opening remarks ardent applause follows, people whoop and whistle in wondered appreciation. Credit, I suppose, has to be given mostly to the organisation at the core of it all.

Podemos is a Spanish anticapitalist party founded in January 2014. By beginnings of September it counted no less than 120,000 members and 20% ratings in the latest polls. It had elected five MEPs and is set to take Spain by storm at the next general election in December 2015. Its success is often described as part mystery, part formulaic “Twitter revolution” theory. And while it is true that Podemos reflects the political zeitgeist and has effectively built itself on the momentum of the 15M movement, there is much more to be said about its politics, strategy and exponential growth.

“I think we can emulate [Podemos] in the organising in the grassroots, drawing people in, speaking to the 90%, using social media when necessary”, Left Unity co-founder and revolutionary film-director Ken Loach tells me.

He adds another example of what Left Unity should be doing differently: “Using fresh language.”

 

But what does that mean?

It isn’t the first time I hear that we need to speak differently. During the build up to the British student movement of 2010/2011 I often had heated debates with members of the so-called “old Left” arguing for more Public Relations, more social media – on our side. It is well documented that uprisings don’t occur from a hashtag alone, but learning to communicate in progressive ways – even to co-opt some capitalist strategies of mass appeal – seems to be vital for any political organisation attempting to produce change in the twenty-first century.

“I think that what Podemos shows, and what other social movement groups like Juventud Sin Futuro or Oficina Precaria show, is that you can combine the autonomous, digital media campaigns with an active reaching-out to mass media”, says Cristina Flesher Fominaya, author of Social Movements and Globalization (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

And according to Cristina, the process of being publicly recognised as a legitimate organisation does not happen instantaneously.

“You know, it’s little by little. They didn’t just overnight end up on these morning talk shows. They established those media connections, their media savvy and catchy and interesting direct actions, and then they engaged.”

She agrees that much like corporations have adopted more democratic channels of communication – such as the social media platforms Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest – to promote their products, so must social movements learn how to take over and efficiently use mass media channels for their causes.

“Alternative media is absolutely crucial don’t get me wrong, but also engaging with mainstream media and mass media and thinking very holistically about how to combine those campaigns.”

The key lies in “retro-feeding” your message through these many avenues. It’s a process through which groups must constantly try “to keep on message and keep tweaking it and subverting and contesting”, she argues.

 

But what does this essentially mean?

In short it means the ways of organising that the British Left has taken for granted so far are utterly necessary but useless if not linked to two other tactics:

Firstly, the mentioned multifaceted approach to putting your message across. Leafleting door to door and holding local branch meetings is necessary, but so is blogging and writing opinion pieces for your local paper (they might be a dying breed but they are still read by thousands of people in your neighbourhood).

Secondly, keeping the message simple, clear and to the point. The Podemos programme is built on six simple aims, all based on the principle of democracy. It abides to the usual “rules and regulations” of socialist organisations – standing against sexism, racism, homophobia and all other types of prejudice and exclusion – but it gives members a clear structure of argument. It is therefore easy to understand, support and regurgitate. Unlike what some crude critics argue, the point is not to unite under the lowest common denominator, but to leave very specific alignments to debate and to group scrutiny, rather than to make them be-all end-all foundations of the organisation. Where one stands on the issue of Palestine or Scottish independence is important, but it won’t be helpful if taken outside the context of the organisation’s original purpose – to be the genuine political representation of the overworked, underpaid, disaffected 99%.

Importantly too is that these messages can be improved as the organisation grows. “Keep tweaking it” – as Flesher puts it. Political organisations today (perhaps always) have to be adaptable to the demands of the majority. As long as the principles of democracy and equality are not broken, the organisation needs to know when to talk about austerity and when to talk elections. Political parties are propaganda tools as much as they are forums of expression and activity for their members. If the people on the street – the “Polish fruit-picker and the Nigerian nurse” as Owen Jones often describes them – want more from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), than the party needs to verbalise that discontent, not pander to cronyism.

Above all, perhaps what is impressive about the Podemos strategy, and which should definitely be a lesson to us all, is its ability to embrace nuance and not to give in to black and white solutions to the problems at hand. Realpolitik is after all the art of advancing your political project when possible and giving way when necessary, without ever compromising your ethos. The Podemos European elections’ strategy was the brainchild of Íñigo Errejón, the man who said that “each country has to find its tools” to “highjack democracy”. The understanding that one needs to be flexible whilst sticking to one’s core beliefs has often been amiss on the Britsh Left.

 

But don’t you need mass to attract mass?

Newton’s law of universal gravitation only applies to politics to a point. It is true that social movements and political parties can snowball once they’ve gained momentum. But where that momentum comes from and how political attraction can operate despite inexistent visible mass are points that Left Unity should think about long and hard.

Sceptics have come forward saying that unlike countries like Greece and Spain, Britain does not currently have a political movement active on the streets. There are no occupations of public squares going on, no million-strong demonstrations. This often crystallises into what I see as a misunderstanding of Rosa Luxemburg’s Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organisation (but let us leave that for another article). Crucially, we need to recognise that whilst many of these social movements and new anticapitalist parties have come out of a fortuitous sequence of events, organisations of different forms were involved in creating them from the start.

In Spain the 15M and the Indignados movement grew out of the said “indignation” of certain layers of society with a series of oppressive laws pushed through by neoliberal knee-jerk reactions of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) then in power. A cull of digital activism through the Ley Sinde, a media crackdown on strikes and workers’ protests, and the generally declining life and working conditions in the country (youth unemployment at 47% by 2011) created an explosive environment. Different activist groups started mushrooming about, some visible only online, many others on the streets too, handing out manifestos printed in A5 sheets.

According to Pablo Gerbaudo – a lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London and author of Tweets and the Streets (Pluto Press, 2012) – the popularity of the Democracia Real Ya campaign and the momentum towards the first May 15 demonstration was seen as “an opportunity to overcome division and inertia”. Several other groups joined in the call and “200 civil society organisations, including well-established groups like the anti-globalisation group ATTAC” joined in the call for action.

Their self-description as “neither left nor right” – which Podemos echoes and which is yet another discussion to be had in another article – did not mean they were actually outside or beyond the political spectrum. Standing for democracy, equality and collective decision-making processes the Indignados movement was well to the Left of the establishment, but also permeated with left-wing activists and even organisations from the get go. Our engagement with local issues and grassroots initiatives, not by demanding to lead them, but by fight side by side with those who are part of them is essential. Much like our duty to call for action where coordinated action is needed and yet not existent. To call for united action when there are three different campaigns. And to throw our weight behind those most representative, inclusive and efficient at that.

 

So what needs to be done?

I am not claiming to have the answer to the perfect left-wing party in Britain – I wish I did – but I do think there are lessons to be learnt from the successes and the failures of similar projects across Europe.

I also believe that, against my better (orthodox Marxist) judgement, we need to co-opt the dexterity and shrewdness of capitalist forms of propaganda in order to make ourselves visible and heard.

Marketing guru Philip Kotler wrote that “the costumer will judge the offering by three basic elements: product features and quality, services mix and quality, and price. All three elements must be meshed into a competitively attractive offering.” It might sound obscene to some that I strongly believe there is much that the Left could take from this sort of advice.

We know that our “product” is good – it is the best, in fact. In our politics we rest the hope for a better world. A world in which there is absolute equity, equality and equilibrium. The world socialists want to build is one of greatness, not just for a selected few but for every single person in this good old world. Who could possibly not want that?

Our “price” isn’t half bad. OK so people know that building a better world is no smooth task. People know it because creating this not so amazing version we currently have is not that easy either. But when given the option to make things better for themselves and their loved ones, people do move mountains. People have always given their lives for their children, laboured harder to feed their elderly, gone to prison for the right to vote, the right to use the same facilities, the right to stand up straight and live with dignity. It wouldn’t be now – no matter how cynical this world might seem – that people would stop being inspired by a message of progress and prosperity.

But our “service” is poor. We have interiorised our weaknesses, made to act in defence, holding on dearly to creeds and formulas like deranged alchemists. The average Joe thinks it best to stay away from the Left or to mock it for its impractical project. We – the Left – have allowed political opponents to define us by what we are not. People that demand the impossible, they said. People that want to take away from you your individual freedoms and your right to chose between an iPhone and a Nokia Lumia, they said. And now we are faced with the task to prove them wrong.

Thankfully we are not alone. We have seen that change of rhetoric happen on our very doorstep. When UKUncut came around, it positively changed the message from “people living above their possibilities” to “corporations not living up to their responsibilities”. The Occupy movement pulled a similar trick with the creation of the now ubiquitous term 99%: we cannot be made to pay for the banking crisis when what we have in our billions adds up to the same amount of what those few, clearly responsible for this mess, have in their few hundreds.

How we create that change of speech, of poise and above all of doing politics is what is now in our hands.

“It’s easier to make speeches where we denounce what is happening, the difficulty is asking the question and finding specific organisational answers”, Ken Loach pointed out to me with a smile.

But we have a growing number of people out there on the streets hungry for change. We have the examples of the rest of Europe showing us the way. We have history on our side. Nos Podemos. We Can. Let’s do it.


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17 comments

17 responses to “New methods for new parties – learning from Podemos”

  1. Haroon says:

    Nice post but I fear that its not just about using new media and getting the message right. The political change we need is more fundamental. Nos Podemos did not just succeed because of its communication strategy, but because its a movement NOT a party. Its structure and democratic processes are wholly opposed to those used in traditional party politics , which sadly Left Unity is reproducing. Your comment that Podemos is neither left or right should be ringing alarm bells for those who continue to think in these outdated terms.

    • asved says:

      Yes. as a member of PODEMOS (it’s not NOS PODEMOS) myself I agree that the success of PODEMOS has a lot to do with its democratic processes. Anybody who signs up online can join and vote in PODEMOS. Anybody can even be a candidate in PODEMOS open primaries. It empowers people to see politics in a whole new light.

  2. John Penney says:

    The “neither Right nor Left” mantra is the age old slogan of an unprincipled political populism which always ends up exposed as in reality a cover for opportunism and often very dodgy right wing politics indeed.

    The terms “Right and Left” are not “outdated terms” at all – but describe fundamental policy divisions between the pro-capitalist and socialist politico-economic alternatives facing people all over the world. What the world needs now is real radical democratic socialism – not crowd-sourced populism.

    Populism on its own cannot but feed on the dominance on a mass scale of bourgeois ideology. How could it be otherwise ? “popular mass ideology” as directed, filtered and promoted by a capitalist mass media always contains major elements of nationalism, homophobia, and racism – and an acceptance of capitalist values and organisational forms. If this wasn’t so the working class would have seen who their real oppressors were, the capitalist class, and overthrown them many generations ago.

    What Britain, Europe, and the world needs is a interconnected set of genuinely radical Left Socialist parties to build support through action for a genuine socialist alternative to capitalism.

    Podemos (and Grillo’s Movement in Italy) can teach us on the socialist Left a lot about mass campaigning techniques and mass mobilisation around popular issues – but these populist movements are ALWAYS actually dominated by a fixed leadership clique and often a charismatic leader just as much as the most centralist Trot grouping – and once the loose mass movement has sent representatives to the legislature on a woolly ,usually contradictory, political policy bundle, the grouping always disintegrates into careerism, corruption, and opportunism.

    Forget all that “beyond Left or Right” rhetoric – it’s a slippery concept actually most popular on the radical “Third Way” neo-fascist Far Right, but also amongst opportunist populist parties like UKIP. Only a focussed, Left Socialist policy bundle, and a democratic, open, but properly structured PARTY formation around these democratically agreed policies, can build a long term, resilient, mass movement which has any chance of challenging capitalism.

  3. John SC says:

    John’s post is just a fine example of how this failed generation of leftists are clinging on, refusing to let go of their banners and 1950s language.

    Of course the UK left should use modern media. Of course it should be on TV. Of course it should have primaries. Of course it should copy Podemos. It’s politics not a lifestyle choice.

    But if you do that the usual collection of tired out old faux-commies over from the 1970s and 80s won’t be able to run everything and have insane debates about some dead philosopher or whether or not to support f***ing ISIS. Wasting time and energy.

    I mean really, they don’t get it. Just like the parties in Westminster don’t. Podemos has 122,000 members inside six months. Feel the contempt from John. It’s amazing. He even vaguely compares Podemos to fascists…crying out loud.

    As for LU, it doesn’t have a fixed leadership clique? Come on. We don’t even really know who they are or what they do. It’s ‘policies’ aren’t wooly? Have you read them? Policy is proposed/accepted by a small number of people who can afford to go a small number of meetings. Bingo.

    I mean you don’t want a party of 122,000 people (inside a year) all you need is this wonderful 1950s socialism to remove the blinkers of “the working class.” Who are blinded by “populism” which “cannot but feed on the dominance on a mass scale of bourgeois ideology.”

    Such contempt for ordinary people is amazing, even when written like a sociology lecture.

    Head meet brick wall.

    • Daniele Gatti says:

      I mostly agree with your critique, the problem with Podemos (and Syriza too) is not formal (movement vs party, strong hierarchy vs decentralized structure etc), and they should not be lumped together with Grillo (who’s sitting in the same EU group as Farage).

      The issue with these two parties is substantial, and undermines everything else they might think, say or do: they both ignore that NOT ONE of their economic and social policies is possible if their respective countries remain inside the EZ.

      Let’s face the facts: in a crisis, when you can’t devalue your currency relative to your main competitors/trading partners (which are ALL inside the EZ) you HAVE TO slash wages, unless the wealthier countries in the union are willing to increase their wages and inflation accordingly.

      Which is not going to happen, certainly not with either Merkel or the SPD (the party who passed the Hartz “reforms”) in power, and much less now that the AFD is on the rise.

      Therefore, euro = austerity, so everyone who supports (and not advocating eurexit equals supporting it since it perpetuates the status quo) the euro also supports austerity, either willingly or not (but that doesn’t really matter in the end).

      This is actually a flaw they share with more traditional leftwing parties, I don’t know whether it’s born from genuine ignorance or if they don’t want to upset voters too much, or again if they think that for some idiotic reason (essentially because they got there first), eurexit is a right-wing idea, and I don’t care. This lot are condemning their peoples to perennial austerity as much as the mainstream parties in their countries.

  4. Dave Kellaway says:

    Podemos and the Grillo movement in Italy are two quite different kettles of fish. Although they are discussing still how to structure themselves the Podemos movement is not controlled through a fake online democracy dominated by Grillo and his guru Casellegio. Podemos has local assemblies which are sovereign whereas Grillo abhors any attempts at normal political structures like local congresses, tendencies or regional/national meetings. Podemos is definitely to the left of the CP dominated Izquierda unida – everyone is the Spanish state recognises that. Indeed as Joanna says it includes organised currents like LU such as Izquierda anti-capitalista, one of whose members, Rodriguez is an MSP from Andulacia.

    One of the points Joanna makes about engaging with the mass media and also nicking good ideas from the business world in terms of communication is absolutely correct too. Of course political tactics and strategy in the mass movement and the rest of the left is still the number one issue around how to build. So for example in scotland standing outside of the fantastic Radical independence campaign would be a massive error if you want to build something significant in scotland now.

  5. Robin says:

    Where is the social movement in the UK that made Podemos what it is?

    In relative terms, it just is not there.

    No amount of change to ‘speech, of poise and above all of doing politics’ can substitute for it.

    If anyone thinks they can, they will end up repeating the same mistakes the existing left make, accept you’ll need a postgraduate degree to decipher what it says.

    • Simon Hardy says:

      So the left should just “build” its little sects and discussion circles until a movement arrives that can launch a new party?

      • Robin says:

        No, not at all. ‘The Left’ should get involved in what struggle there is, and try and learn from it. I remain skeptical of the possibility of building a new, left party without a rise in struggle of some sort.

        I see left unity role as playing a positive part of that when it will come, and support it on that basis.

        I think if you don’t see it like this, it becomes just another bloody sect, with its own shit to deal with.

        In this article, I thought the real lessons of Podemos got lost in the desire to replicate some of its features in less fertile ground.

        What interests me is how the left related to a movement that was initially hostile to traditional forms of politics, how people persevered on an anti-sectarian basis, and how the result was something better than both a radical movement short on politics and established political parties short on radicalism.

        As we enter a protracted constitutional crisis, directed by a right-wing backlash, the way Podemos is able to pair demands for basic democracy that are clearly understood with an anti-system message is a clear ‘take home’ for us in the UK.

        I apologise for crude comments re new ‘poise etc’. I agree actually agree with them – but with the important cavaet that this new ‘poise, speech, and above all, how we do politics’ will be something established leftists learn from new layers of people in struggle, and wont come from the established left (united or not).

  6. Gavin says:

    Is there a Pademos position on Catalan independence? Is Pademos active in Catalonia?

  7. John SC says:

    It’s organising in Catalunya. But it has generally stood a little outside the debate and some members, including one of its MEPs from Catalunya, have said they are against independence. After all a sizeable thrust of Catalan independence is `why should we pay for those peasants in Extremadura` etc…

  8. pete green says:

    This is an excellent thought-provoking piece by Joana. AS someone who was at the meeting in london I strongly endorse what Dave Kellaway says above about this being a completely different type of party to Grillo’s Five Star movement. John has I think misinterpreted the ‘neither right nor left’ position taken by some in the movements (as quoted by Joana)as being the position taken by Podemos. But you only have to look at their manifersto to realsie that Podemos are very clearly on the anti-capitalist left and as they said their new MEPs will be voting with the other European Left MEPs in the Parliament. But, as Ken Loach is quoted by Joana as saying, they are trying to use ‘fresh language’. Thats certainly what we need more of here – as well as the sort of movement we’ve seen in recent weeks in Scotland.

  9. micheline Mason says:

    The People’s Assembly, 38 Degrees, WeOwnIt, DPAC, Hope Not Hate, Wool Against Weapons, Keep the NHS Public, Campaign for State Education, Save childhood Movement, False Economy,Class, Stop Climate Change, No to Fracking,E15 Mums, the Equality Trust etc etc etc – these are all part of the anti-capitalist movement. The thing they have in common is their desire to stay outside of organised party politics because they know trhat will be the reason for media-based-murder. This is one of the problems we have to think about.

    • Joana says:

      I agree with Micheline here. We need to think not of how to make these many amazing grassroots movement join us, but how can we honestly join them. I am a strong believer that the LU project will only work if we earn the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the 99%. So far we don’t. Once we are organically part of these movements and these movements know who we are, what we stand for and want to support our claim, then we can start building comparisons with parties like Syriza and Podemos.

      • Simon Hardy says:

        Yes – in reality Left Unity is being built in the traditional “British way” – branch meetings, “interventions” into campaigns and so on. I think there is a real desire in LU for a new approach but until someone writes clearly what the new approach is then it is mostly just a warm feeling rather than an instrumental policy.

  10. John Smith Cohen says:

    Copy Podemos. Copy them. Go and meet them. See how they do it. Then copy it. Don’t copy failure.

  11. Ally MacGregor says:

    “Neither Left nor Right”. Hmm, if one stands in the middle of the road for long enough, one will be run over!!
    I attended the Birmingham meeting with Podemos and Syriza representatives and apart from using mass media better and more efficiently I didn’t hear anything new and of course, the mass media argument isn’t really new at all. I have been making that argument since the Arab spring. I was promptly shot down at a TUSC meeting a few years ago with the glib response “I don’t think the Egyptian revolution was the result of a Facebook campaigns” or words to that effect.
    There is no substitute for getting out there onto the streets face to face with those that we wish to influence. However, we can use mass media to get them out to meet us.
    In any event, both Podemos and Syriza are diluting their original aims and are propping up the ruling class in both Spain and Greece and taking part in the administering of austerity measures demanded by Germany and France right now.
    Ally


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