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Socialists in need

If the PSOE wants voters to believe it represents change for Spain, first it must overhaul itself

The feeling is setting in that the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) is not advancing in any of the dimensions of political action: ideology, strategy and organization. Voters are turning away from the PSOE, which they include in the fatal category of "political class." Above all, the primum movens is lacking: leadership.

This lack was sadly apparent in the recent commemoration of the electoral triumph of Felipe González in 1982. Of course, comparison of Felipe González with any politician active today in Spain is unfair. Barring some genetic mutation, there is no other leader of his capacities in sight. While sociology and psychology can explain other Spanish prime ministers, González remains a mystery. How, without any special family, social or educational background, did he rise to be so exceptional a leader? True, González rose at a special moment. He had his mission cut out for him. After decades of stagnation, Spain had to be brought into the modern world. And he had a small loyal nucleus around him, mostly from his native Seville, who shared his sense of mission. And after a stiff fight at a convention-in-exile in France, he obtained the right to use the classic initials, PSOE.

Yet tensions soon emerged between party and leadership. Two crucial González decisions, which enabled the party to win a sustainable majority, were the renunciation of Marxism (for which he threatened to withdraw his charismatic leadership) and Spain's entry into NATO (for which he went directly to the voters in a referendum, short-circuiting the party's anti-American instincts). As these examples illustrate, the task of leadership in a party is the breaking of structural and ideological braces to maintain strategic freedom, while keeping the organization supple and adaptable to society. But the inertia of large parties is such that they wear the leader down; it is hard indeed to transform a large party without the moral authority conferred on a leader by a time of crisis.

Political activism attracts people who are polarized ideologically, and thus more dogmatic and rigid

The reasons why party structures harden so fast are psychological: political activism attracts people who are polarized ideologically, and thus more dogmatic and rigid. And social: politics becomes a settled way (and means) of life, especially for those to whom it gives greater social mobility than they enjoyed in the past. Professional politicians hang on to their place in the organization, making it rigid and ossified. However, and very dangerously for the left, this last reason is not so apparent in the right, because the strategies necessary for maintaining the existing order are relatively obvious, and the conservatives are less in need of politically specialized vanguards. On the right, circulation (the revolving door) between economic, social and political elites is more fluid. Thus Mariano Rajoy, or practically any of his Cabinet members could, without personal economic detriment, go back to law offices, banks, etc.

At the recent commemoration, PSOE leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba spoke of "reformist radicalism." A disconcerting expression, because, what radical and/or reformist policy is the PSOE now seriously proposing? The maintenance of public healthcare and public education don't count. This is playing defense, and in politics you have to be on the offensive. The answer to the question is none. But above all, the, expression contrasts with the glaring absence of internal reform. The PSOE knows well enough that its principal, and chronic, problem is its lack of credibility as a party capable of governing, the lack of reputation of its apparatus as a potential source of ministerial talent. What plans are afoot for such reform? Again, the answer is none.

Here is a specific question, which the ruling PP need not answer for obvious reasons. How is society to be transformed by those who cannot transform their own party?

José Luis Álvarez teaches Organizational Sociology at Harvard.

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