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Why is everyone talking about the British Pablo Iglesias?

It is surprising that much of the media are comparing new UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to Spain’s Podemos. But they are completely right to do so, argues the party’s chief

Jeremy Corbyn after being elected leader of the British Labour Party on Saturday.
Jeremy Corbyn after being elected leader of the British Labour Party on Saturday.STEFAN WERMUTH (REUTERS)

How surprising, paradoxical, even ironic, that much of the media are comparing the Labour veteran Jeremy Corbyn to Podemos. What can the new leader of the old political party founded by British trade unions have in common with a movement born barely 18 months ago in Spain? Basically one thing: the failure of the social-liberal “third way.”

It is often said of my party that we represent the indignados, the outraged. This is not wrong, but is only half an explanation. This movement in Spain is an expression of the failure of neoliberalism, the political ideology which destroyed social protections, industry and trade unions, produced speculative bubbles and consumption based on credit, and proved unable to deliver acceptable solutions when the financial crisis accelerated the destruction of public services impoverishing both workers and the middle class. When the crisis hit Spain, the PSOE Socialist Party, traditionally identified with the welfare state, was in government and failed to provide an alternative.

Not only did the Spanish Socialist Party not react as socialists, they didn’t even dare to reject the policies of austerity and the slashing of public spending or to offer a minimal Keynesian rescue program. The prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero simply surrendered to the crisis, embracing the same measures that a conservative government would have done. He himself acknowledged in a memoir that he knew that the measures he took would cost him elections and the leadership of his party.

At last we have an ally in the UK with whom we share a diagnosis of the current political crisis

This failure contributed to a public perception of the two major Spanish parties as almost identical; they embodied the privileged political elite, while the welfare cuts they imposed impoverished the majority of the population. The biggest social expression of the resulting public disaffection was 15-M, a movement whose main message was the rejection of the political and economic elite. Podemos only became the political-electoral expression of that movement because the Spanish Socialist Party seemed to many voters just like the (conservative) Popular Party.

The story in the UK is not so different. The success of neoliberalism in Britain meant the defeat of Labour and the British working class, a process which played out in many symbolic ways. What moved me most was the defeat that Thatcher inflicted on the miners, who staged a heroic resistance. And what affronted me most was Tony Blair’s “third way,” a direct successor to Thatcherism, which turned social democracy into a sort of new social liberalism which would eventually become a reference point for all European socialist parties, particularly for the Spanish.

If Podemos is the best expression of the identity crisis in Spanish socialism, Jeremy Corbyn is the best expression of the identity crisis in the British Labour party. The challenge could have come from outside the party (as in Scotland, where traditional Labour voters understood that the SNP would be better defenders of social rights); instead it has arisen from within.

More information
What does Podemos want?
Religion by other means
“In the general elections there will be two options: the PP or Podemos”
Podemos: A party under construction

But whether it comes from inside or outside is not important. At last we have an ally in the UK with whom we share a diagnosis of the current political crisis and a plan to fight for the defense of social rights through policies to tackle inequality. Our role is simply to represent the social majority, the masses hit by a financial governance model designed to favor the financial elites and their clientele.

Increasingly socialists are joining us to defend democracy, to fight against austerity and inequality. We can only say: welcome, comrades. Let’s walk together.

The smear campaign against Corbyn has already begun. Again we hear the kind of insults that the Greek government received and that we in Podemos have received. And we hear the same kind of condescension in the warnings that he can only ever be a voice of opposition and can never govern. And yet across Europe we are becoming stronger and stronger.

This article was written by Podemos secretary-general Pablo Iglesias for The Guardian.

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