Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Spain captured the world headlines last week as thousands of young people poured into Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to demand “real democracy now”.

The massive protest was under the Movimiento 15-M banner with similar demonstrations witnessed in Barcelona, Bilbao, Murcia, Valladolid, Santiago de Compostella, Vitoria, Zaragoza amongst other Spanish cities as well as amongst young Spaniards in Washington, New York, Frankfurt, Berlin, Athens and Mexico City.

The most tense day was last Saturday – a day of reflection in Spain’s town hall elections and also in polls for some regional governments. It is a day by law when no political activity can take place and the Junta Electoral Central that governs such matters had deemed the Puerta del Sol gathering illegal.

In the event the thousands gathered in Madrid’s central plaza remained in place without any confrontations with the police. The minister of the interior, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, consulted with security officials, but took the view that as long as the protests remained peaceful no action was to be taken.

A wise political move as socialist Rubalcaba is the favourite to succeed PSOE premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Zapatero will not contest the general election next March and this summer a new socialist leader will be chosen. A bloody confrontation last Saturday ahead of the polls on Sunday when PSOE was humiliated in many of its strongest seats would not have read well on his CV.

The irony of course is that the political beneficiaries of the deep anger over the high unemployment, financial meltdown and corruption has been the centre-right Partido Popular which is well set to take power in Madrid at the general election. Ironically the far-left Izquierda Unida (which includes the Partido Comunista) has also received a boost from PSOE’s mauling but not sufficient to make any inroads in to central government. Gaspar Llamazares, the IU MP, stated: “The results of the IU were positive but insufficient. Positive in the extension of autonomous and local seats but insufficient because we did not collect the votes lost by PSOE or of the radical democracy. We need to change and become the focus of the social and political left.”

As Llamazares has identified the problem for all political parties in Spain is their total rejection by a large number of young people in the country and especially those who took to the streets. They view all politicians as “deplorable” with over half subscribing to the view politics has nothing to do with them neither does it encroach on their private lives. Also in the firing line is the Catholic Church, large companies, the unions, the Spanish Royal family and parliament.

The majority view is the Catholic Church is too rich and meddles too much in politics. Of the politicians themselves they are viewed as pursuing their own interests and in promoting the interests of the multinationals and banks over those of the people. “We live under the dictatorship of the markets” was one of the protest banners.

There would also appear to be a collapse in the support for social movements compared with just six years ago. Ecologists, pro-human rights groups, pacifists have all lost support with only one in five young persons belonging to any form of association and those are largely cultural, sporting or youth orientated.

The family has always been a strong feature of Spanish life and is the refuge for many in the economic crisis with its accompanying high unemployment. A survey has shown that 85 per cent of young people still live with their family whether they study or work and the average age of leaving home has risen to 27. Not surprisingly 71 per cent rate their family as the most important aspect of their lives ahead of their health and friends.

Spain, as in many nations, is being confronted by a generation of pessimists. Over 40 per cent see unemployment as the major problem in their lives, over half of 15 to 24 year olds view their future with extreme pessimism, indeed it is a generation that believes it will be worse off that its parents.

The Partido Popular might be riding high in the polls but it would be very foolish indeed if it believed it is tapping in to this anger and dissatisfaction – for the party of the centre right, mired in corruption, is seen as part of the problem not the solution.

(A version of the above article appeared in The Morning Star on Thursday May 26 2011)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The venue was Millbank Tower in Westminster by the Thames. The room in a previous life had been New Labour’s campaign briefing headquarters. Labour has moved on and now it is the Tories who occupy offices upstairs.

The event was the Fabian Society’s “Progressive Fight Back”. It was billed as “the first chance for Fabian and Labour members and other campaigners to debate what the fallout of the 2011 elections mean for the future of British politics.”

So did the Tories send a spy to listen in? Well to be frank if they did they would have been more than happy with what they heard. They would have found a Labour Party busy studying its navel, a party under the guidance of Peter Hain ‘refounding’ itself and to be honest it was not a pretty sight. Indeed if the political ghost of Lord Mandelson was still lurking behind the scenes he would have spun in his ermine gown.

Hain’s brief from Ed Miliband is to ‘refound’ the Labour Party. However the Labour Party is an irrelevance to the majority of people in Britain. Voters make governments and not party members whatever the activists may think. The voters are swayed by what politicians say on TV, radio, the press and social media. Few give any thought to the Labour Party and on this evidence it’s just as well.

Party members stood up to speak of a hostile party, one where local organisations were used as tools by MPs or councillors to secure their re-selection, of a large unfathomable rules book, of branches that set out to put members firmly in their place and discourage family involvement, a Labour that expects its members to campaign without adequate information or support and the public can be a member of this sorry state of affairs for just 40 pounds a year. Don’t all rush at once!

Peter Hain has the unenviable task of ‘refounding’ the party with the option to open it up to first and second class members. The consultation only has a month or so to run and if the Fabian’s conference is anything to go by the final conclusions could be dire.

For me the most depressing picture of the modern Labour Party was not painted by the members but by Hain himself. Fresh off the back of leading the party in Wales to success in the Welsh Assembly elections he urged delegates not to Twitter one statement because he’d never said that and refused to make another because he was scared of what the party hierarchy would say. He even talked of a key Labour committee where he and other members were not allowed to exchange email addresses as they weren’t to communicate with each other. If they had anything to say to each other, and preferably they didn't, it should be done through party HQ.

One of Hain’s big ideas for engaging with the public is to copy from the US Democrats the “joggers for Obama”. I say it is his big idea for he pushed it three times at least. If Labour believes the “Millipedes” are going to sprint the party to victory at the next election they face many years in opposition.

The Labour movement was forged by men and women with fires in their bellies who campaigned for social justice. The issues have changed but the need for passion hasn’t. The party has no place in modern day politics but Labour has.

The traditional canvasser is greeted on the doorstep with best indifference at worst hostility. The door knocking is dismissed by voters because it is a once every four or five year event and for the rest of the time they are ignored.

The new political agenda is not being set in the USA but on the streets not by teams of canvassers but by the people of Arab nations. It is people power in its rawest state fuelled by the explosion of the social media. The challenge for the Labour Party is to adapt to a world where nearly everybody has a mobile phone and almost every household is connected to the internet. That is where the future elections will be fought and won without a jogger in sight.

Cable theft: I should add the key note speech at the Fabian’s conference was made by Andy Burnham reflecting on the general election defeat, the results of the recent 2011 elections and the strategy for recovery. His subsequent session of engagement with the audience was bizarrely interrupted by the surprise arrival of Lib Dem minister Vince Cable. Cable then high jacked the remainder of the Burnham’s session, overran in to Hain’s and stole the headlines in the Fabian Society’s blog on the conference. A blog which incidentally totally ignores Hain’s speech on ‘refounding Labour’ and the consultation process.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


It is 75 years since the start of the Spanish Civil War and in recent days the Ministry of Justice has published a graphic map on its website showing more than 2,000 burial sites of the victims of the war and the Franco repression to be found on the Iberian Peninsula, the islands and the north coast of Africa.

It is not a map of historic reference but an aid to those who still want to find or recover their family members. Visitors to the ministry’s website can key in regions of Spain or a person’s name to see if the common grave has been located. Advice is given on how recover these remains for reburial depending on the rules and regulations applying in the various autonomous regions.

The map of Spain is covered with green, red, yellow, black and white markers denoting the state of a specific common burial site. Some graves have been exhumed, others untouched, some have disappeared, there are zones with a number of burial places but there is a giant blue star in the centre of Spain indicating the Valle de los Caídos where many of the victims of Franco’s slaughter was transferred to.

The Valle de los Caídos – Valley of the Fallen – was started by Franco in 1940 supposedly as a national act of atonement. It took over 18 years to build, cost over 1.1 billion pesetas with much of the funds raised from National Lottery draws and donations.

Just who built the monument is a matter of argument. Certainly the paid workers were the poor from the land who had no other employment. “Red” prisoners were also used. The charge that the monument site was “like a Nazi concentration camp” refers to the use of convicts and Popular Front war prisoners. They worked in exchange for their convictions being lifted. Ten per cent of the workforce is said to have been prisoners but other sources claim up to 20.000 prisoners were used with dark references to “forced labour.”

The Valle de los Caídos is the final resting place of Franco. He also had interred there José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange, the Spanish Fascist party that aided Franco’s propulsion to power.

The valley contains both Nationalist and Republican graves but apart from being the final resting place of Primo de Rivera and Franco, the tone of the monument is distinctly Nationalist and anti-Communist. Here you will find the slogan “¡Caídos por Dios y por España!” - “Fallen for God and Spain!” symbolising the close ties between Franco’s regime and the Catholic Church. Franco also chose to announce the creation of the monument on 1 April 1940, the day of the victory parade to celebrate the first anniversary of his triumph over the Republic. Franco announced his personal decision to raise a splendid monument to those who had fallen in “his” cause.

As the Ministry of Justice published its map, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the Minister of the Interior, first vice president of the government and the favourite to succeed premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, said it would be practically impossible to identify thousands of the bodies at the Valle de los Caídos.

The Ministry of Justice’s map and website will have encouraged many people whose family members are interred there to try to find their remains. However Rubalcaba warned them the task would be extremely complex and practically impossible to achieve.

It is said that in the Valle de los Caídos are the remains of 33,847 victims of the Civil War from both sides. Between 1959 and 1983 491 bodies were removed and taken to their home towns and villages for reburial. According to the Patrimonio Nacional another 21,423 victims have been identified but the remains of 12,410 have not.

The events of 75 years ago plus the Franco era still haunt and divide Spain. The Ley de Memoría Histórica brought in by the socialist government aims to find the thousands of still missing graves so that grandparents, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters can finally be identified and laid to rest. It is a painful task.

(A version of the above article appeared in The Morning Star on May 11 2011)