Wednesday, November 28, 2012


As expected the centre right Convergencia i Uniò (CiU) led by Artur Mas won the Catalan elections. However Mas has not lived up to his name which means more in Spanish as the CiU lost 12 seats in the process. That was not the outcome that the opinion polls had foretold.

Mas had stated that he intends to stage a referendum in this parliament on the issue of Catalan independence so does his loss of support make this more or less likely?
The answer is complicated because whilst the CiU is by far the strongest party in Cataluña it does not enjoy an overall majority. The other big winners were the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), a left grouping, which has seen its seats rise from 10 to 21.

Even with the final adjustment of seats under Spain’s proportional representation system this means 71 MPs in the Catalan Parliament support independence. The problem is the CiU and ERC are poles apart politically so it is difficult to see them forming a coalition. However politics is the art of the impossible so we will have to wait and see.

Mas has explained his party’s drop in support on the hard austerity measures it has had to introduce in the past legislature. As has been seen elsewhere in Europe the governments that have had to introduce such harsh policies have been ousted at the polls.

Cataluña is one of the richest regions in Spain but is at present also one of the most indebted. Hence the tough policies will have to continue. The CiU needs a party to help it govern: Mas as leader of the largest party has the right to choose who that will be. He can choose the ERC or the Catalan arms of PSOE (PSC) or the Partido Popular. With the ERC he knows they share his independence ideals whilst the PSC and PP are strongly opposed.

Mas called the elections two years early in September after Spain’s Partido Popular Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had rejected demands from the Catalan leader for the region to control its own taxes. Not only did he call a general election but also stated his intention of holding a referendum on independence. This fed in to the Catalans demand for full independence after 30 years of autonomy.

The view on the streets on election night was that the CiU and ERC already have a deal on independence and the referendum. In addition Catalans believe they contribute an unfair percentage of the nation’s finances in tax and even pay more still on their toll motorways.

The PSC is traditionally the second force in Catalan politics and was one of the parties of government in the legislature prior to the CiU taking power. The socialists now slip to third with just 20 seats losing eight seats. The Partido Popular gained one seat to 19 but the performance of both is viewed as poor. The overall turn out was 68.63 per cent: 10 points up on two years ago.

Read the results as you will: one thing is certain is that the Catalans thirst for independence has not been quenched. The future may seem more complicated than previously suggested but an independent Cataluña, or at least attempts for form a Catalan State, now moves to the top of the region’s and Spain’s political agenda.

(Photo: CiU)

(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on November 27 2012)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


At the weekend the Sunday Times gave a whole broadsheet page to French politics. Six columns were dedicated to a sneering report on Francois Hollande, to the effect that the socialist president’s popularity was in freefall and the nation could be soon seeking bailouts. The other column went to French tycoon Arnaud Lagardère who apparently has a fiancée much taller than him. It comes as no surprise then that the once most respected of British newspapers is today part of the Murdoch stable.

However the real story of political interest on Sunday wasn’t at the Elysée Palace or indeed at Chez Lagardère but at the election count for the next leader of France’s Conservative opposition party the UMP – Union pour un Mouvement Populaire. The BBC correspondent in Paris, Hugh Schofield, in his report described events thus: “Watching the results come in was like seeing a really crummy disaster movie. The events were terrible, but it was so bad you just wanted to laugh.” It is his turn of phrase that makes up this article’s headline.

First a bit of history. In Britain all our main three political parties are to say the least well established. The Conservative Party was formed in 1834 but traces its roots to the Tory Party which started in 1678. The Liberals grew out of the Whigs in 1859. Even the new kids on the block, the Labour Party, was formed in 1900.

In contrast in France whilst it has long established socialist and communist parties the groupings on the right change with the wind. I am old enough to remember De Gaulle’s splendidly named Rassemblement du peuple francais. He formed that party in 1947 but by the time he left politics in 1970 he had lead three different parties of the right: all anti socialist and communist. So when we talk of the fight to lead the UMP, the party of Chirac and then Sarkozy, we are speaking of one that is just a decade old.

The reason this election to choose the new leader of the UMP created such headlines is both candidates claimed victory a day before the final result was declared and then accused their rival of fraud and ballot-stuffing. The right-wing candidate Jean-Francois Cope finally came in ahead of former Prime Minister Francois Fillon by just 98 votes and the UMP has been badly damaged by the fiasco.

I asked Pierre Kanuty who is in charge of European and international relations at the Parti Socialiste in Paris for the left’s take on these events. Pierre also started with the historical context. He told me: One needs to understand that as a matter of fact, there has never been a true conservative party in France though we have a strong right wing party. All of them have been presidential organisations dedicated to ensure networks aimed at one man’s victory.

“In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Gaullist MP’s needed a political frame for campaigning so they created the UNR (Union for a New Republic), followed by the Union of democrats for the Republic.

“In 1976, Jacques Chirac organised his party, the RPR (Gathering for the Republic). His first success was to be elected as mayor of Paris. The rest of the history is well know, the RPR used municipal jobs to have manpower for the party and got money from many companies to fund the party and its campaign. They also cheated many times on local votes in Paris.

“The following year Valery Giscard d’Estaing, President of the Republic at the time formed his own party, UDF (Union of the French democracy).

“Chirac’s RPR was depicted by its founder as the “French social democracy” supposed to be more leftist than the UDF. The truth there was always a conservative – neo liberal wing and a centrist, pro-welfare state fighting each other within the RPR and the UDF.

“The rise of a successful conservative revolution in the UK with Thatcher and in the US with Reagan gave them hope, but the electoral cost was very high as the French conservative voters still wanted a strong state even if they were in favour of strong tax cuts.

“The crisis of the conservative leadership is a very long story, but as long as the parties were dominated by high figures like Chirac, or Sarkozy, it was easy to reduce it to childish games.

“In 2001, the RPR decided to merge with centre right UDF to form the UMP. Some of people from UDF refused to join, claiming there was room for a true centre party that eventually became the MoDem led by François Bayrou.

“Nicolas Sarkozy took over the party and he organised it as a war machine entirely aimed at the 2007 victory. Renewal of ideas, networks, activists, communication and media strategy, nothing was left behind. But the main thing was to assume a true neo liberal and neo conservative ideology.”

With the defeat of Sarkozy in May by Hollande and the defeated president’s subsequent resignation from the party leadership obviously the UMP had to seek a new leader. All parties after defeat lick their wounds, rally round a new leader and move on. What went so disastrously wrong for the UMP?

Pierre explained: “As long as Sarkozy was President, he was also the true leader of the Conservative Party, and obviously when he left, his succession had to be secured. But it is a tradition in the right, no heir, no successor. Conservative leaders like Jean-François Copé were too busy thinking about their own career, focusing on 2017 the year of the next presidential elections.

“François Fillon, former prime minister comes from a social conservative background, but as Sarkozy’s Prime minister, for five years, he implemented a neo liberal policy and, even if he ended his term with a better popularity rate that Sarkozy, he was symbolically defeated since his old constituency was won by a socialist candidate, Stéphane Le Foll who became minister of agriculture. Fillon decided to target an easier place to be elected in the “bourgeois” Paris’s 7th district and Quartier Latin as a first step for a further fight : being mayor of Paris in 2014.
“Jean-François Copé never left his home town, in a Paris suburb. With his “uninhibited right” he’s ready to do whatever it takes to grab the extreme right National Front’s voters.

“The vote of 18th November was a opportunity for UMP members to choose for the first time their leader without any electoral pressure as we are only six months after the presidential and legislative elections. The rules of procedures were very hard. Each candidate had to be endorsed by almost 8,000 party members representing 10 local branches at department level. The 265,000 party members could vote in 650 polling stations. Only 176,000 persons voted.

“The socialists with less party members (around 150,000) had more than 3,000 polling stations in their vote on the leadership one month earlier. This is one of the reasons of the mess.

“The means never matched the needs. Copé finally won with only 50,03 %, just 98 votes ahead.

“Such a small margin requires a huge effort to bring legitimacy to the new leader. If there is no surprise in Copé’s victory, it shows that the leadership crisis is not over yet since somebody can argue that the “minority” represents 49.97 % of the party.”

I leave the final word on this debacle to Pierre:

“In the 1980’s, there was a slogan saying “the French right is the dumbest in the world”. Seems it is still accurate.

(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on November 20 2012).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Back on October 5 I wrote an article in the Gibraltar daily newspaper, Panorama, in which I told how I got talking to a young politician by the name of Hadleigh Roberts at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester. He is a linguist and his skills saw him working in the Parti Socialiste offices in southern France. He was also a staffer on Axelle Lemaire’s campaign which saw her elected as the PS MP for the French overseas constituency, which stretches from the UK to the North Pole.  He is committed to Europe and spoke at conference on this theme.

I went on to say he asked me two questions that he had been putting to people he met. There is a possibility that after the referendum Scotland could leave the United Kingdom. If that is the case then treaties that are binding to the UK would not be valid for Scotland. This would mean if Scotland wished to be a member of the European Community it would have to apply for membership in its own right.

The first question was: would the UK government object to Scotland joining the EC?  The second question was this: would Spain block Scotland’s membership? Well, as I said, I never saw the second one coming but Hadleigh explained Spain might black ball Scotland’s application because it would not want the Scots to set a precedent for the Catalans or indeed the Basques making a similar application.

My answer to the first question was I did not believe the UK would block Scotland’s membership of the EU although that would largely depend on the fall out from the referendum and also what London’s relationship with Europe was at that time. Likewise in response to the second my answer was I did not believe Spain would interfere in a political matter that revolved around the remainder of the UK and a newly independent Scotland. I was wrong.

I did not appreciate what a panic the UK’s decision to allow Scotland a referendum on independence in 2014 would cause amongst the Spanish Partido Popular Government in Madrid.

The Basque’s in their regional government elections on October 21 saw both the two Nationalists parties take huge majorities over PSOE and the Partido Popular. They want out. Next up on November 25 is the Catalan regional election which again the nationalists are expected to win. If they do, they will hold a referendum on independence next year.

Against this scenario Spain’s foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, has been speaking out. He stated the “right to secession is not recognised in any of the constitutions of the EU” and hence neither the Basques nor the Catalans can follow Scotland’s lead and try to leave Spain. He also argues that any such move is against the UN Charter and EU Treaty.

Spain has nudged the EC Vice President, Viviane Reding, to back its stance. She is from Luxembourg and so you may have expected she would back the notion that small nations might be free”. Apparently not: she has confirmed that if Cataluña leaves the Spanish State it also leaves the EU. Be sure that Madrid has no intention of letting it back in but like the UK and Scotland eventually Spain might find it is better to have the Catalans on side rather than out in the cold. For now hard ball applies.

Spain’s premier Mariano Rajoy has also warned the Basques during their regional elections they would be isolated outside of Spain and the EU if they went independent: the same message has been delivered by his PP henchpeople to the Catalans.

Garcia-Margallo further commented that in the UK sovereignty resided with Parliament and it was Parliament that had authorised that the Scottish people could leave the Union if they decided “to navigate their own course”. He added that a referendum held without the approval of the British Parliament would have been illegal and have had no effect on Europe. Spain’s Constitution does not allow for any such referendum.

Now comes the key bit of the Spanish Foreign Minister’s argument. He says that if Scotland opts for independence then it will be outside of the EU and have to go to the end of the queue for membership. To finally achieve that membership it will have to obtain the backing of all member states. Hence there will be no fast track for Scotland and by implication Spain would block any attempt for special treatment. In all likelihood Spain would veto Scotland’s EU membership as it would be terrified that independent Basque and Catalan states would attempt to follow in its footsteps.

This pitches Spain into the debate over Scottish independence. Madrid may not have anticipated the angry reaction this will generate in due course from Edinburgh. Certainly an independent Scotland will not sit quietly by whilst the Partido Popular interferes in its future status. Also when the question of Scotland’s future membership of the EU is debated between now and 2014 expect the SDP to come out fighting against Madrid.

Rajoy and the Partido Popular have a fight on their hands with the Basques and the Catalans: now they can add the Scots too and indeed maybe the British Government. Meanwhile Gibraltar is sitting patiently by: it has been fighting a 300 year old war with its Iberian neighbour and has seen it all before. If the Spanish State breaks up it will work in the Rock’s favour. Be sure Gibraltarians will gladly add the Catalans, Basques and now the Scots to their side in their battle to self-determine their own future.

The Scotland question has been answered but the answer begs still further questions.

(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on November 9 2012)

Friday, November 2, 2012


At the Labour Party Conference in Manchester I was talking to some delegates from Unite the Union. I was speaking about the Spanish Civil War and the Unite Memorial at the Karl Marx Memorial Library in London. It was at that point that a non union member asked – “Why aren’t our unions doing more to help Spain now?” A good question.

Everybody knows that Spain is in an economic mess: it was brought on in part by the collapse of the speculative property bubble but at the heart of the debacle lies the country’s abusive and in some cases criminal banks.

The banks have received massive bailouts and are still in line for more cash. Indeed Bankia, which is at the centre of the scandal, has in the first nine months of this year reported the highest loss in Spanish banking history - 7,053 million euros. It is waiting for a cash injection of 19,000 million. As this appalling loss was announced its former president Rodrigo Rato was summoned to appear before the High Court to answer fraud charges.

It is against this scenario that Spain’s jobless totals have now hit over 25 per cent – the highest in Europe, nearly 53 per cent unemployment amongst the young (the European average is 22.8), with an accompanying cut to the dole payments. Education and the health service are in crisis; pensioners are under attack and every day over 500 people are evicted from their homes yet still owe the banks thousands on their mortgages.

The major unions, the UGT and CC.OO, are behind the many industrial protests. A general strike will be held on November 14 unless the Partido Popular centre right government cancels its austerity cuts or holds a referendum to approve them. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is committed to slash 150 billion euros over the next three years from State budgets.

Ignacio Fernández Toxo, leader of the Comisiones Obreras (CC.OO) said: “It’s up to the government whether there’s a general strike or not. If they were going to hold a referendum things would be completely different.” Expect the general strike to go ahead on November 14 – the same day as in Portugal, Greece and Cyprus with support from France and Italy in what will be a day of action and solidarity in the EU.

There is much more going on at street level. The people of Spain have given up on their politicians be they from the Partido Popular or indeed the socialist PSOE. It is Izquierda Unida, the far left alliance with the communists at their heart, which is making strong gains or the nationalists in the Basque and Catalan regions who are demanding independence. People are in uproar over the cuts, the corruption, the banks and the collapse of society.

It is a nation that is in despair and demonstrations of 60,000 people be it against the economic situation or the political system are now the norm. However the ghost of Franco lives on in Spain and there are many in the centre right Partido Popular who want to see an enforced end to all protests be they on the streets or over the social media.

The Spanish Government has been talking of a new law that would turn innocent protestors in to criminals. It is an attack on the heart of Spain’s democracy. It is using the isolated violent incidents that have occurred during these mass protests against corruption and the cuts to criminalise certain acts of peaceful protest. Indeed the very act of inviting a person to participate in a peaceful protest via Facebook would be against the law punishable by imprisonment. With the nation taking to the streets Rajoy looks to Franco for the solution.

A mass campaign has been underway in Spain to stop these amendments to the law in their tracks. Some argue they would not be permitted as they are against the Constitution. The key concern is that the Rajoy government is considering them at all because it displays a declaring of war on all who oppose their administration and at present that is the majority of the Spanish people. If Francoist repression cannot be introduced one way it will another.

Which brings me back to the question – “Why aren’t our unions doing more to help Spain now?” The Unite members were unanimous in their response that our unions should back their Spanish comrades. The fact is the crisis in Spain is far more than about the economic crisis, unemployment or the cuts, it is about the very foundations of democracy and free speech.

Many brave British trade unionists laid down their lives in the fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Many others such as Jack Jones fought, many were injured. The ghost of Franco is now stalking Spain: it is time for our trade unionists to support their Spanish comrades once again - not this time with their blood but certainly with their solidarity, words and deeds. Let us start on November 14. Ask your union today what it is going to do to support Spain’s embattled workers.

(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on November 2 2012)