To undertake a full appraisal of a government one needs more time than just a third of a mandate, but given the speed of political events in Spain since 2008, it is worth having a first look at the experience of the municipal government in Barcelona in the first third of its term.
The relevance of Barcelona is due not just to its being the second city of the Spanish state but also to its revolutionary and rebellious traditions and the international resonance of its new municipal government. The aim of this article is to identify elements for discussion and offer a first balance sheet.
The municipal elections of 2015 were without a doubt the most important local contest since the first municipal elections of the democratic restoration in 1981. For the first time, local governments were contested by a plethora of municipal slates that were to break the grip of the two-party system. The two main parties, the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) did not achieve a combined vote of 50%.
The eruption of Podemos in the European elections of 2014 and the electoral decline of the United Left (IU) opened up a debate about the need for a unity list amongst activists and the two parties for the local elections. These confluences had to be the mechanism for merging social movements that had been very active fighting the austerity policies of the PSOE and the PP governments.
Podemos left its members free to run on municipal slates as it was in the midst of organising for regional and the future general elections. That left the process of unity up to those members of the organisation with a more open view to building broad alliances and those who had been linked to the grassroots struggles of recent years.
IU had been in local governments in many cities and had around 2000 elected councillors; this was the best level on which to ensure IU’s claim to be the third party. The situation created a dilemma that could wither away the party’s identity: to join forces with a brand new political organisation that was seen as a competitor as well as with social movements that were often very critical of the organisation – or to stand alone and miss a historical opportunity to break the grip of the two-party system. There was no national homogenous decision, and no national solution. There were unity slates in many cities but in some cases there were two unity slates (or even three!). In those regions where there were regional elections at the same time the situation was even more complicated as Podemos refused unity proposals at regional levels, even where they were happening at the municipal level.
Although it is not the objective of this article to offer an in-depth analysis of the elections, it is necessary to understand the expectations that the result created across the country to assess the elected government.
The new municipal alternatives in many cases overcame the PSOE and became the official left-wing opposition locally; such was the case in Madrid, Zaragoza, Valencia, and Santiago. That created an opportunity for alternative left municipal governments to be formed. Only in Zamora did IU manage to become the most voted force on the left.1 The result was uneven as the PP maintained strong electoral support in many towns and villages — its overall vote was down 28% but it maintained more than six million votes. The PSOE lost half a million, which is 10% of their vote. Overall, the most surprising result was in Barcelona where the newly created unity list was the most voted list. It was the only major city that was not won by a traditional party.2 These elections were the first major break, electorally speaking, for the political forces that are seen as inheritors of political change and of a new politics.
The situation in the city of Barcelona has several elements that make the outcome slightly different from elsewhere. It had experienced a wave of mass mobilisations in favour of the right to self-determination. The national government of the PP has been repressing the movement that exists in Catalonia for an independence referendum.
The process of building the municipal slate started with several political parties and many social organisations that had been working for years against the effects of the economic crisis.3
Although an important organisation of the pro-independence far left decided not to join the slate, Barcelona en comú (BCNcomú) received 176,612 votes (25%). The CUP (Candidature of Popular Unity) stood together with a small group of far left organisations (CUP-capgirem Barcelona). Initially, the CUP negotiated with BCNcomú but they voted ICV4 and to a certain extent EUiA.5 They pointed out that ICV, a green party originating in the PSUC, was part of the establishment and had been in previous governments in the city and Catalonia. The CUP therefore did not join BCNcomú, and won 51,945 votes (7.5%).The electoral coalition ICV-EUiA had gotten a mere 10% in the previous mayoral elections of 2011.
That result gave almost 33% to political forces to the left of social democracy. In a city that had been governed by the local PSOE in all but four years of modern history, it represented a major setback for the centre- left.
But the new emerging political force was not a simple coalition of parties; it was built as a new type of organisation with the principle of one-person- one-vote independently of the political party or organisation of origin, if any, and the wish to be anchored at grassroots level. The local PSOE obtained the worst result since the first democratic elections with 9.6% of the votes (67,475 ballots); in the mid-1990s it was able to poll over 300,000 votes, with 4 councillors, while in the previous mandate they had 11. The incumbent mayor of the right-wing nationalist party CDC got 159,222 votes and 10 councillors, a net loss 15,000 votes. The left Republicans (ERC)6 scored 77,081 votes and 5 elected representatives. Ciudadanos had its best result ever with 77,484 votes and 5 councillors, and the Popular Party was reduced to a mere 60,966 votes and 3 representatives. It is extremely unusual, given the Spanish electoral system, to have 7 political groups in a representative body; but this, again, is proof of the crisis of the political system.7 It has to be said that the turnout increased more than 5%.
The result gave a majority to the left, 23 out of 41 elected representatives. But forming a coalition was impossible since the different left-leaning organisations would not agree on forming a common government. The mood in the city due to social struggle and the general mobilisation was such that social organisations ensured that all left-leaning forces would vote to allow the most voted list to get the mayoralty. Thus on 13 June 2015 Ada Colau was named mayor of Barcelona; for the first time the city had a woman as mayor.
In that sense, it was not just a coalition voted in to create a left in municipal government but the capacity of the forces supporting them to put pressure on the other groups in the municipal legislature that was the key for BCNcomú to take office. On the right side of the spectrum, Ciudadanos was not ready to support a Catalan nationalist mayor of CiU. So the government was formed with the eleven elected representatives of BCNcomú alone – a real challenge because only one of the eleven had previous experience in office.
Historically Barcelona had been governed by the socialists in regular coalition with the communist party (PSUC), then with the ICV-EUiA and also with ERC. Despite a certain municipal vision and positioning of Barcelona (locally known as Maragallism from the name of the mayor that governed from 1982 to 1997), the city did not oppose the general political trends of the country, on the contrary.
The so-called ‘Barcelona model’ has been seen, for years, as a success story of urban development, but it went hand in hand with urban speculation and gentrification. Barcelona had been a highly industrial city, by Spanish standards, with major international firms within the city and many important national ones. The country’s deindustrialisation process was heavily felt in the city, as all major industries were closed down or downsized.
The response to this process was the attempt by the first democratic municipality after Francoism to transform the city into an international hub of logistics and finances that would create wealth and substitute the old sectors. This required major urban modifications that took place before and around the summer Olympic Games of 1992. Barcelona had a history of major urban developments around international events. The 1990s were the years in which the ‘Barcelona brand’ was created. During the 2000s other international events continued the trend, with the city now heavily in debt.
That process transformed the former industrial hub into a multicultural metropolis based on tourism, foreign investment, and banking, with some high added-value industrial sectors but creating few jobs. In this regard, Barcelona became a two-speed city where some neighbourhoods enjoyed the new model while the ‘other’ Barcelona was left behind. For years the socialist municipal governments had attempted to create some sort of redistributive elements but they could not counteract the general economic tendency.
For thirty years they de-facto privatised waste management; they happily handed over the water agency to a French multinational, and they created a tangle of private companies around the metropolitan transport agency, which began to behave like a private multinational.
They never went beyond a redistribution of the crumbs of the meagre tax revenues that cities receive. The criticism of many was that the left in government made no attempt to fundamentally change the structures of power within the city. The socialist reign ended ingloriously passing the municipality on to the Catalan nationalists who continued the same processes.
The new government was built with the idea of tackling social emergencies. The figures from the 2008-2015 period were astonishing. There were around 3,000 evictions per year within the city.8 Around 90% of dwellings were rented. In 2011 around 25,000 families could not pay their water bills; in 2012 the figure grew to 70,000 families within the metropolitan area of Barcelona.9 During the current local administration the number of evictions has diminished, but they continue to occur.
All but one of the councillors who formed the first government of BCNcomú were social activists in one field or another (housing, water, etc.) who generated expectations of change. Many citizens perceived Barcelona as having been adrift, and for them a brand new team might not have experience but it would at least not be linked to the traditional elite.
The programme of BCNcomú was constructed around an emergency plan to tackle the social emergency, a plan that had to be applied ‘within the first months of government’. In parallel to this emergency plan, BCNcomú spent months working on its broader programme with the participation of the citizens of Barcelona.10
The first policy was to invest 160 million euros during the first year of the mandate on social issues. With Barcelona being a relatively rich city with relatively good macroeconomic figures, a self-proposed objective was to develop a ‘programme to create 2,500 jobs in the short term. This will require an investment of approximately 50 million euros.11 While there have been many initiatives organised by the municipal employment agency, the figures are as follows:
The total number of registered unemployed is 80,000 people, exactly the same as in 2009 and slightly fewer than several years ago, but the tendency started to improve with the CiU government. The over-45 age group continues to be heavily affected, and there is no change in the tendency since the arrival of the new government. The general precarious situation of employment has not been modified with the new government or the announced economic recovery.
Many standards for tackling precarious work were announced, but the capacities of the already stretched 12,000 civil servants are very limited. Priority has been given to tackling the abuses in the tourist sector.
The programme states ‘We have to take back public and cooperative control of the economy. Public institutions should exert their authority over private companies that provide services affecting the public interest’, but no concrete measures have been taken to regain control of the key companies that have been given over to private hands through long-term concessions.
It is clear that any alternative municipal government will run into major problems over issues such as IT contracts or telephone provisions. There are no ‘nice’ or ‘alternative’ major providers for many of the city’s needs. The challenge is then to develop and construct elements of alternative economic structure that can provide a real alternative to the few multinationals that control a determined sector.
Public procurement is seen as the main weapon a city has to resist the main tendencies of capitalism. But it has to be used effectively. The petrol provider, the energy provider, and the IT provider should be chosen to develop an alternative economy. This has historically been the role of municipalism and cooperativism. Here the process of remunicipalisations that the leaders of BCNcomú have defended in public is the proof of the pudding. So far only two kindergartens12 and the service providing assistance to abused women have been taken back into public control13 – a grand total of 80 workers, while a music school has been outsourced losing about 20 workers.14 The overall balance sheet is not very positive, although the stated aim is to take back a good third of the outsourced employment. Either we will see a huge move towards re-municipalisation or this is going to be a broken promise.15
Sometimes it is necessary to accept a certain level of compromise when there is no other alternative, but the structures around the public entities have to be fundamentally replaced in order to avoid the continuous pressure that the elite puts on governments (especially when the government is hostile to these interests). Locally, Spanish and foreign multinationals still have most of their multi-million euro contracts. One could say that closing down all of them would be expensive and sometimes there was no alternative to retaining them, but the expectation was that those types of relations would be squashed. It is not just a question of ‘punishing’ these huge multinationals, but of using this public funding to develop new types of companies, which is a fundamental part of the mandate that the citizens of Barcelona gave the elected government, as is also combating an economic model which keeps fueling the economy of the city through mass tourism and housing speculation.
Again, there is a difficult thin line between compromising principles and being realistic. The city announced a plan to cut ties with all companies that could be accused of tax fraud or tax evasion.16 The problem with such a positive move is that unless there are real alternative providers or an in- house capacity, one can be trapped in an unsolvable situation.17
Many things were done in the first months of government, and a new style came to the institution. But the first good steps in recovering empty flats from the ‘bad banks’ to be put to social use have to keep pace with the decaying economic situation. As evictions continue, unless there is a clear structural policy on housing the city council will not be able to counteract the capacity of the market to expel people and keep increasing the rents. There was also a moratorium on hotel building in order to study the expansion of the tourist sector, which is detrimental to the cost of living of many residents. Both the structural housing policy and the moratorium demand a major confrontation with other public administrations governed by the right-wing. Whether Catalan or Spanish, Barcelona has the choice of compromising with those levels of government or mobilising its engaged citizenship to advance radical policy alternatives. So far it has favoured the first option.
A very successful part of the programme has been the different subsidies to low-income families in the form of food aid to school children and other type of grants for children. This type of initiative, however, runs the risk of not tackling the root causes of the increasing inequality that the leaders of BCNcomú have set as a target to reduce. This positive policy can turn into its opposite if it is not combined with a more aggressive re-appropriation of wealth from the elite. So far, that aspect represents the weak link in Barcelona. The same can be said of the subsidy given to poor families not to pay property tax.
Another good development has been the fines to dodgy touristic operators, like Airbnb, and undeclared tourist flats, but still the scope of such fines is very small. Closing down 600 touristic flats was a more efficient decision, but these kinds of flats are so much more profitable for the owners than normal rent that this will not stop the use and abuse of such platforms without more effort.
Another important issue for the city council is the fight against corruption and for opening up the institutions to the public. For that reason, there has been a battery of initiatives to increase participation, publish every single invoice as well as contracts, and involve citizens in the strategic plan. This is accompanied by public consultations in the neighbourhoods around important matters such as tourism or mobility. Another key element is to reclaim the streets for pedestrians and reduce car use. So far, the superblocks18 plan has attracted a lot of attention, and it is a clear alternative to mainstream urbanism, but at this initial stage it needs more propaganda and pedagogy to support it. In the first third of the mandate mobility has been the most difficult element, not because it was decided to have one day a week without cars but because one of the established economic powers, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency (TMB), is under city council control but does not respond to the council as one might expect.
The TMB is a huge employer in the city with almost 8,000 direct jobs and several thousand indirect ones. It is a publicly-owned company, which before BCNcomú got into office was bidding for the contract to privatise the underground system of Porto. Fortunately, that bid was cancelled. TMB managers are clearly overpaid and refuse to admit it,19 and it has been confronted with a six-month long strike by the metro drivers over the collective agreement and wages, with whom these managers have dealt with considerable arrogance.
This has been one of the worst experiences of the new government – the impossibility of adequately managing an industrial conflict and the siding of the municipal team with the management of the company.
In fact, the conflict of the metro workers brought to the fore the contradictions of the stated programme of fighting against precarious work and improving working conditions. We have gone from saying that a city- provided allowance (a sort of pay weighting for the high cost of living in the city) was planned to claiming that metro drivers were earning too much and should not strike. This has shown itself to be a dangerous trend that if not corrected soon can degenerate into a clash with the local trade unions.
In September 2015, only a few months after having taken office, Ada Colau posted on Facebook a strong criticism of European asylum policy and a denunciation of the so-called refugee crisis, thus launching the Refugee City Project and appealing to other cities to follow suit. The argument is in line with the concept of new municipalism and the rejuvenation of government close to the citizen. She also successfully attempted to change the line of the Spanish government within the European Council so that Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, had to accept a higher quota. Despite this political success very few refugees have arrived and no other successful attempt has been made to unblock the situation. So Barcelona has become a refugee city without refugees but plenty of undocumented immigrants.
This public discourse so favourable to hosting clashed with the local police campaign to chase street vendors, mostly of sub-Saharan origin, from tourist hotspots. Fuelled by the local press, which has used the issue to blast the left government and the opposition, BCNcomú found it very difficult to justify its position of trying to use police methods against the street vendors combined with public consciousness-raising campaigns. Here we clearly discover a contradiction between the new municipalism and the need to change national legislation in order to be able to work for the integration of the people who do not enjoy full citizenship.
The first year of a new government is considered crucial, as most issues appear in the first months even if the politicians are brand new and without experience. The case of Barcelona is no different. The first twelve months had an uneven balance sheet of a government that was learning as it went along. This is a government that has generated huge expectations in Spain and abroad.
Yet, about a year after having won the elections, the leadership of BCNcomú decided to invite the Socialist Party (PSC) to be part of the municipal government, contradicting its claim of being a new political force untainted by the political establishment. As the four new city councillors from the PSC joined the 11 from BCNcomú, the remaining 9 leftists (from the CUP and ERC) declared war on the municipal government, announcing that they would not make it easy to pass the budget as they saw the move as politicking. The argument given to the BCNcomú rank and file for inviting the PSC was that the government could not last long with only 11 members and that the workloads were too heavy.
That decision creates a watershed in the history of Barcelona’s new municipal government. After little more than one year in office BCNcomú decided to bring back ‘old politics’. The fact that the very political force that had created the model against which BCNcomú had fought is now part of the government was not seen as a worrisome element. The first year of government was a difficult period with ups and downs, but the decision to invite the Socialists has had the effect of demobilising the social forces that were the root of the victory. This will have a long-term impact on the initiative and the capacity to really challenge the established powers of the city, which is the stated aim of this government. The struggle was always going to be uphill, but the leadership of BCNcomú has decided to fill their pockets with stones; only time will tell if these stones prove too heavy.
2. The traditional parties include the PP, PSOE, and the Catalan and Basque nationalists (CiU and PNV). The only exception was Gijon, which was won by a former split of the PP, but this party joined the PP in the national elections.
3. The best-known is the PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca), which was active against evictions, but there were others like Agua és vida (water is life), a movement against water cuts, or L’aliança contra la pobresa energètica (alliance against energy poverty).
4. Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verts (ICV) had the virtue of providing legal access to the local mass media during the campaign as they were an existing political force with representation, though most activists did not want to exclude them.
5. EuiA is the Catalan federation of Izquierda Unida.
6. A left nationalist force that has a Member of the European Parliament in the Green- EFA group.
18. A term referring to blocks of buildings that are liberated from cars, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/may/17/superblocks-rescue-barcelona-spain-plan-give-streets-back-residents