Barcelona’s new mayor, former housing rights activist Ada Colau, has compared the experience of winning the city election this spring to giving birth for the first time. As she explained at a public meeting in the Raval neighbourhood, shortly after taking office: ‘Everyone talks about the day of the birth, and there’s all this expectation placed on this big moment, but then, suddenly, you have a child and you realise it’s just the beginning. That’s when the real work starts.’
This metaphor for the victory of Barcelona en Comú and the other citizen platforms that have been catapulted into government in Spain’s major cities is particularly apt. The platforms had a gestation period of little over nine months between their launch in the summer of 2014 and election night on 24 May 2015. Almost overnight, many of their candidates went from demonstrating in the squares outside their city halls to (legally) occupying the offices within.
This outsider status and unfamiliarity with the machinations of institutional politics is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the citizen platforms in government. It gives them the freedom to disregard traditional assumptions, but it also implies a vertiginous learning curve for mayors and councillors who have never held elected office before. With their first 100 days in government behind them, the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for Spain’s ‘rebel cities’ are starting to become clear.
Most of Spain’s major cities, including Madrid and Barcelona, are currently governed by citizen platforms. These loose alliances of citizens and progressive political parties were devised and driven by activists from social movements, with political parties lending their support subsequently. The platforms are thus rather different from traditional party coalitions, and they are proving a fertile testing ground for new forms of citizen-led politics.
Though the names and composition of the platforms vary from city to city, they have a common philosophy and way of working. At their heart is a commitment to participatory decision-making; they use assemblies and digital participation tools to decide everything from their policy agenda to their organisational structure.
Beyond the specifics of the programmes in each city, the shared aspiration of this new municipal movement is nothing less than to break apart the post-Franco political structures by constructing new, radically democratic forms of governance from below.
The citizen platforms have enjoyed a number of victories during their first months in office, preventing evictions, halting the privatisation of public services and increasing public investment in social programmes. They are also experimenting with new forms of participation in local decision-making. Madrid has launched an online platform where residents can share their ideas for the city, Coruña has created a ‘citizen’s’ seat’ in council meetings to allow ordinary people to speak there for the first time, and Barcelona has launched a participatory process to reassess the city’s tourism strategy.
Despite their early achievements, however, the citizen platforms are finding themselves constrained by the limits of municipal power. Over recent years, the Spanish government has imposed significant recentralisation measures and budget cuts on local governments, reducing their already limited ability to pursue alternatives to austerity. In addition, many of the goals of the movement, from protecting the human rights of migrants to building economic alternatives to financialised capitalism, are heavily determined by factors at European and global levels.
The new city governments have developed a number of strategies to challenge these limits. The first is to join forces, creating municipal alliances in pursuit of their shared priorities. Examples include the network of ‘refuge cities’ across Spain, and the new network of Catalan cities committed to promoting the social economy. Such networks allow the cities to share knowledge and resources horizontally, and to start to build alternative social and economic models from the bottom up.
The administrations have also sought to increase their influence by engaging in political debate in creative new ways. For example, the Barcelona council has passed a motion declaring the city a TTIP-free zone, while Madrid has declared its support for feminist demonstrations in the capital. These moves have led to accusations of ‘gesture politics’ by among others the deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, and to claims that the citizen platforms prefer the politics of protest to the nitty-gritty of governing.
As controversial as they may be, such declarations of intent are giving visibility to issues that would otherwise be sidelined. A poll conducted after the May elections revealed that Ada Colau and Madrid’s mayor, Manuela Carmena, were the most popular political leaders in Spain. In a context of limited local powers and resources, mayors and councillors are harnessing their political capital to change the terms of the national conversation.
Winning elections is not the same as winning back the city. Indeed, the wisdom of making the move from the squares to the polls has been the subject of fraught debate within Spanish social movements since the eruption of the indignados occupations in 2011. One of the most mimetic indignado slogans, ‘No nos representan’ (they don’t represent us), was just as much a critique of representative politics itself as of the parties in power. The questions the indignados raised about the risks of standing for office, both for those who do so and for the social movements they seek to represent, are more relevant than ever.
The first danger is that activists voted into elected office will be tamed by the institutions they seek to change. The citizen platforms have sought to mitigate this by committing to strict ethical codes that impose salary and term limits on their representatives, and tie their hands from seeking financing from banks or corporations. The hope is that this will allow them to change the rules of the political game altogether, rather than just replace one group of politicians with another.
The second, even greater, concern is that the electoral turn will weaken the social movements the citizen platforms seek to defend. As well as losing some of their most politically experienced members to public office, social movements risk seeing their autonomy compromised by their ties with local institutions. According to public debt activist Iolanda Fresnillo, social movements ‘must find a balance between head-on opposition to the new governments and uncritical collaborationism. We’ve got to harness opportunities while pointing out contradictions, share proposals, make demands and insist on having our own space to express them.’
The municipal movement is, and must remain, a dynamic ecosystem that includes rebel city governments, citizen platforms and social movements. If it is to have any chance of achieving its paradigm-shifting agenda it must learn which of its goals can be facilitated by local institutions and which initiatives must be implemented outside them. It must harness the political clout of its most visible leaders while keeping decision-making in the hands of the invisible thousands. It must support progressive political projects at regional and state level without abandoning its local calling.
All this with no rulebook to follow. It will be up to the municipal movement in Spain to write the how-to guide to winning back the 21st-century city through its action, day by day, over the years to come.
Kate Shea Baird tweets @KateSB and writes on Catalan and Spanish politics. She is a member of the coordination team of Barcelona en Comú
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
In Pictures: The World Transformed
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram