By Eoghan Gilmartin
When Pope Francis granted Spain’s left-wing deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz an official audience before Christmas, the opposition Partido Popular branded the meeting a “communist summit.” It seems that even for the mainstream right, the head of the Catholic Church is now part of the “anti-Spain” bloc determined to undermine the nation. Francis had already come under attack last September when he apologized for the Church’s role in the Spanish conquest of the Americas; his meeting with Díaz, a lifelong member of the Communist Party of Spain (Partido Comunista de España, PCE), only reinforced the Right’s animosity.
In truth, the meeting provided greater headaches for centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his governing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE). Since she took over as head of Unidas Podemos (the junior partner in Spain’s progressive coalition) last April, Díaz has gained increased national prominence, with recent polling showing her overtake Sánchez to become Spain’s most popular political leader. Nearly one-fifth of 2019 PSOE voters now prefer her to lead the next government.
In this context, the papal audience was a propaganda coup — allowing Díaz to project the image of a national leader, and one capable of reaching out well beyond the far-left electorate. It also underlined how much her rapid ascent as the Spanish left’s new figurehead has depended on her institutional profile, first as labour minister and then as one of the three deputy prime ministers. In contrast to her predecessor Pablo Iglesias and other left-populist leaders across Europe, Díaz has become a household name not primarily as an anti-establishment outsider vowing a break with the existing political system but as a government minister seeking to guarantee the rights and income of working people during the pandemic.
“We [the Left] have shown we can govern better,” Díaz declared in November, “in the interest of the social majority.” In recent months, she has extracted a number of partial but necessary concessions against PSOE resistance, such as a moderate rise in the minimum wage and a windfall tax on energy giants, while also spearheading a progressive reform of labour laws.
Yet the growing momentum behind Díaz has yet to be tested by any major political crisis. In 2022, she faces the difficult task of reorganizing the country’s fractious left space around a new unity platform. Beyond that, with rising inflation hitting workers’ incomes’ hard and two years of pandemic management taking its toll on Sánchez’s standing as premier, polling suggests the current coalition faces an uphill struggle to maintain its majority in next year’s general election. As Díaz reorients the Spanish left as an alternative governing force to PSOE while also cultivating closer ties to organized labor, the question is whether the type of social gains achievable within the current arrangement will be enough to ward off a hard-right victory in 2023.
A former labour lawyer from the northwestern Galicia region, Díaz was appointed to Unidas Podemos’s only major ministerial position when the coalition took office in January 2020. When the pandemic hit two months later, she gained prominence in the cabinet as she negotiated a series of agreements between employers and unions over the social response to COVID-19. The most notable concerned the Spanish state’s massive furlough scheme, at its height guaranteeing the wages of over 3.5 million workers.
Yet even as Díaz began to poll among the most popular ministers, under Iglesias’s leadership Unidas Podemos suffered a series of crushing regional election losses through 2020 and into 2021. Iglesias’s final months in the cabinet were defined by deadlock and rising tensions between the two coalition partners as strategic PSOE-run ministries repeatedly stonewalled Unidas Podemos ministers’ legislative priorities. His attempts to regain traction by renewing his attack on the democratic credentials of the Spanish state and then framing last May’s Madrid regional election as an existential battle between “democracy or fascism” seemed more to help galvanize the far right than his own base.
Beyond the exhaustion of Iglesias’s own appeal as a candidate, the Madrid result also seemed to point toward the final exhaustion of the 15-M/Podemos cycle of mobilization. The major concepts that dominated the Spanish left over the last decade — rupture from the post–Francisco Franco 1978 constitutional regime, democratic revolution, new versus old politics — had already lost much of their mobilizing power prior to COVID-19, but the onset of the pandemic saw a more definitive shift. “Solutions rather than great debates are now being sought [by weary progressive voters],” argued political scientists Mario Ríos and Daniel Vicente Guisado in ctxt in September. Similarly, journalist Daniel Bernabé called for the Left to adopt a “reformist realism . . . reclaiming concrete solutions [to urgent material needs] as a defense against the Right’s culture wars.”
As Díaz made her first interventions as the head of the Spanish left last fall, she emphasized different focuses: left unity through dialogue, a more feminized, less macho politics, moves to counter the far right with concrete social reforms, and a proud identification with labor and trade unionism.
This latter was a particular shift for the Left, after organized labour was largely peripheral to the last decade of mobilizations. But Díaz’s alliance with the country’s major unions — especially the Communist-affiliated Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), Spain’s largest — has been key to her momentum in office. The CCOO leadership has undergone a generational shift since Unai Sordo’s election as general secretary in 2017, accompanied by a tilt to the left. Díaz’s deepening alliance with CCOO — of which her father was a historic leader — now looks likely to be one of the defining axes of her emerging electoral platform, set to replace the Unidas Podemos brand in the coming year.
From the beginning of the coalition, Sánchez was circumspect about what this commitment to repeal the 2012 reform really meant. He was never willing to echo Díaz’s assertion that the government would proceed either with or without an agreement with business leaders; and as premier, his “progressivism” has time and again stopped short of any measures that would impose losses on economic elites or challenge existing power relations.
Then, last October, Sánchez sought to intervene in the social partnership talks by attempting to replace lead negotiator Díaz with PSOE’s right-wing economics chief Nadia Calviño. This came after the corporate sector had become anxious at the scope of the proposed counterreform, with Brussels also applying pressure to leave untouched the greater flexibility the 2012 law had afforded to management over questions like layoffs and outsourcing.
“There is a part of the government that does not want the model of labour relations to change, that wants to maintain the status quo,” Díaz responded. The anger at the attempted U-turn even among the PSOE’s own base, and union talk of industrial action, soon saw Sánchez reaffirm Díaz’s authority — albeit on the basis of her reassurances that a compromise deal between unions and employers was possible.
The final “social partnership” agreement announced on December 23 ultimately fell short of a complete repeal of the 2012 reform, while doing away with many of its most damaging aspects. Evaluations on the Left remain divided. Supporters of the deal emphasize that it represents a break with the decades-long trajectory of downward pressure on labor protections. “For the first time [in 30 years], this is a labour reform that recovers and improves workers’ rights,” insisted CCOO’s Unai Sordo.
First, the deal reestablishes the primacy of sectoral wage agreements over company-level ones — thus ensuring unions’ ability to negotiate a standardized level of pay across a sector, including for those working for subcontractors in a given area. For workers in such subsidiaries, where company-level agreements currently run behind sector-level standards, this should deliver meaningful wage increases — though in some specific cases, such as hotel cleaners, there is a dispute over which exact collective agreement applies.
Finally, the sanction regime against companies using fraudulent temporary contracts will also be strengthened, with fines now applicable for each worker involved rather than a single company-level penalty. The latter is crucial, for the actual impact of the reform will be measured by the labour ministry’s and unions’ capacity to report infractions and make good the rights proclaimed on paper. Díaz had already instituted a much more aggressive workplace inspection regime, with her ministry converting 267,000 temporary contracts into permanent ones in the first ten months of 2021 (a 58 percent increase on 2020), while unions are promising a more robust strategy of collective negotiation in 2022 as inflation eats into workers’ purchasing power.
While the legislation has been passed in the cabinet, it still requires parliamentary approval. Leftish Catalan and Basque nationalist parties (essential to the government’s majority) are currently demanding further guarantees that regional sectoral agreements will take precedence over national ones if they are to lend their support, and negotiations are ongoing. But for Díaz, it is crucial that the bill passes before the February 8 deadline, as she is now looking to pivot to the wider task of restructuring the Spanish left.
In purely party-political terms, the wager of forcing a coalition with PSOE in 2019 (pursued doggedly by Iglesias) seems to have worked for a Left that had risked outright implosion. Government participation has created the conditions for the successful renewal of the Left’s leadership, and potentially opened up avenues for it to avoid the type of marginalization and fragmentation that other left electoral projects have suffered in the UK, Germany, and France. A year ago, it looked like being tied to PSOE in coalition would leave Unidas Podemos worn out by the time it reached the 2023 elections. But the smooth leadership transition last spring and the promise of a unity candidacy after years of internecine factionalism has given it renewed momentum, just as Sánchez himself looks increasingly exhausted.
Polling on the so-called “Yolanda effect” highlights her presidential appeal — pointing to much wider identification with Díaz as a leader than with the existing left-wing parties. While Unidas Podemos has seen a moderate poll rise under Díaz, bringing it back to the 13-14 percent it scored in 2019, she has the highest approval ratings of any leader nationally, and is second-most preferred as leader of the next government, with 17.1 percent support. She is already ahead of the Partido Popular’s Pablo Casado and has closed the gap with Sánchez (21.9 percent). Moreover, 64 percent of those who voted for Íñigo Errejón’s Podemos breakaway Más País in 2019 now prefer Díaz as Spain’s next prime minister, along with 53 percent of voters for the Basque left-wing party EH Bildu, 28 percent of Catalan Esquerra Republicana voters and, crucially, 18 percent of previous PSOE voters.
Yet a second term is far from certain. Most polls give the right-wing bloc (including the Franco-nostalgist Vox) a slight edge over the current government parties, though neither bloc would likely have an absolute majority. And while Díaz has associated herself with the coalition’s most popular policies, there is growing frustration at the pace and ambition of the governments’ wider reform program. In a major recent survey for El País, 70 percent of the coalition’s own voters said they believed its policies benefit corporations and the rich more than they do the poor — a damning indictment for any left-wing administration.
In various key areas, from housing to tax reform and regulating energy prices, the coalition has yet to deliver the change it promised. Díaz is seeking another increase in the minimum wage, building on an existing 22 percent rise since 2019 by bringing it above €1,000 a month. But ultimately, a hypothetical left surge around her brand of labourism will not count for much if the Right ends up winning a majority on the back of a weakened PSOE. To repel such an authoritarian nationalist alternative, Díaz’s reinvigorated social democracy is urgently required. (IPA Service)
Courtesy: Jacobin Magazine