This is a translation of an interview conducted with Ada Colau, who yesterday, standing as part of the Barcelona en Comú platform, was elected mayor of Barcelona. It was originally published in La Marea on 22nd of December 2014. It gives good and relevant insight into Colau’s political perspective –and prescience- and how the project she is associated with fits in to the overall scheme of things in Spain’s uncertain political landscape, including Podemos. The interview was conducted by Daniel Ayllón.
Note: Guanyem Barcelona –‘Let’s win back Barcelona’- which is referred to repeatedly in the interview, changed its name to Barcelona en Comú –‘Barcelona Together’- after an unscrupulous local political climber bought the rights to the name, hoping to exchange it for some form of political privilege.
La Marea: How do you evaluate 2014?
Ada Colau: The year has been marked by the irruption of Podemos. But it’s important to point out that Podemos is not only Podemos. It is the maximum expression of a democratic revolution that has been cooking up for a few years now and that has had various phases: the PAH, 15-M, the mareas. It has gone from a mass mobilisation to realising that this was for real, that there was a need to look for effective safeguarding mechanisms for defending the lives of ordinary people. The citizens have been ahead of the institutions in the defence of rights: it is they who have stopped evictions, who have defended hospitals against privatisation…and that cycle has not come to an end. Many people, who have no particular interest in a political career, have had to have a re-think. Because the capture of the institutions is a threat to rights and democracy.
Do people mistrust the institutions or only those who govern them at the moment?
The institutions are in an enormous crisis of legitimacy.
There have been corruption scandals in them all.
At municipal, regional and state level, in the courts.. not only due to corruption alone, but also due to the revolving doors and their use for party-political purposes. The parties of the regime have destroyed democracy. They have generated a highly dangerous situation. We are seeing this throughout Europe. Neo-fascist parties are emerging in France and other places where it seemed unthinkable. There was a similar situation also in Italy years ago, when widespread corruption cases emerged. That’s where Berlusconi came from, because there was no strong citizen mobilisation. We have learned from that. Luckily, in Spain, there has been a positive reaction. We are going to come out of the crisis better than we entered it. They are going to make it difficult for us, but there are many people who have stepped forward and who are prepared to take shared responsibility for coming out of this crisis with a real democracy.
What risk is there that the offloading of activists from social movements into political parties might unravel what has been woven socially, as occurred with the PSOE in the 1980s? Who is going to oversee them when they are in the institutions?
It is not true that there has been an exodus from the social movements either in Podemos or in Guanyem. Nor is it that they are pulling away. Look who has driven Podemos forward. They are in step with the movements, there is no exodus. We are focused on learning from the Transition and the subsequent demobilisation. Those who have stepped forward have done so while taking care to maintain the independence and autonomy of the movements, which maintain their own roadmap and mobilisations. We are going to need more social mobilisation than ever. Regardless of who wins. We can never go back to delegating democracy: it is voting every four years that has got us into this.
But there are many of you who have stepped forward. Don’t you think that this risk of demobilisation is real?
There is a historical memory of the recent past. In the movements that I am close to there is a great deal of awareness of this. When I myself, for example, left the PAH I was conscious that there was a very strong movement with people who could take on all responsibilities, at every level. And that’s how it remains. The platform continues with its agenda and actions. We have not decapitated anything and it is stronger than ever.
What will your priorities be as mayor of Barcelona in 2015?
The citizens are saying that we must put an end to corruption and malpractice, and to the revolving doors [between political institutions and the world of business]. But those who are immersed in this corruption and this impunity are not going to change the rules of the game. We need to change the priorities of public policy and put social rights at the centre and put a stop to evictions. This is the country in Europe that has the shame of carrying out the highest level of evictions. And any administration has the powers to stop this. I do not accept this talk about having the proper authority. At a municipal, regional and state level there are tools for stopping them, if there is public will. And for ensuring that empty housing that currently lies in the hands of the banking sector is used for social purposes. The same applies to public education, public healthcare, food, basic services. And also, to change the concept of political participation. It needs to be from the bottom up, not the reverse. People who gather signatures via a Popular Legislative Initiative need to be able to create binding consultations for major issues. Spaces for participation are to be decentralised into neighbourhoods. There can be no major urban development carried out without consulting the residents involved…it is a matter of bottom line issues. We do not need great revolutions or to bring down the system in order to achieve this.
Could winning the mayoral elections in Madrid and Barcelona be the beginnings of a state-wide change, as happened in 1931?
Municipal politics is the foundation. There has to be a democratic revolution and that entails people empowering themselves at different levels. It is caricature to imagine that everyone has to be out on the streets or always at assemblies. Each person must be where she can and where it interests her. And what better place is there than local politics? It is key because it means starting from the bottom up.
Pablo Iglesias claimed in January that a project such as Podemos needed a leader as a reference point and that there could only be three people who could do this: he, Alberto Garzón [from Izquierda Unida], and you. Did they offer this for you?
No. They did not make me any proposals formally. It’s true that I had conversations with Pablo about this. But at that moment I was in the PAH and it was very clear to me that I did not want to make any step in that direction. It’s true that the focus on personalities generates discomfort among those of us who have been in social activism for a long time. It is annoying, but it’s also true that we live in a mediated society, and that requires having faces to put to projects. Both in the case of Podemos, and in my own case, what matters is that there is a collective management, a shared responsibility for such personalised leadership. As long as they are at the service of a common project, they need to be controlled collectively.
How did you react when Pablo Iglesias mentioned it to you?
It was an informal conversation. There was no project already mapped out. It wasn’t a matter of signing for a team.
Are you on the left?
Clearly, I see myself in line with the values and the tradition of the left. But if you ask me to define myself, I identify with democracy and human rights, which are values traditionally associated with the left: the struggle for equality, social justice, fraternity, the struggle against inequality… but I believe political labels ought to be useful for transformation, not the other way round. There are people who are too tied to a classical lexicon of the left that must be updated. If the people in the street don’t speak with that lexicon, it is not the people’s problem. It is that this lexicon is no longer useful and needs to be updated. It does not mean you are running away from these values. What matters are values, not labels. There is a classical left that has become outdated and has distanced itself from society and from the people it wants to represent. But whose problem is that? The people’s? It makes no sense to reproach people because they don’t use your schemas.
Who is responsible for this?
A major responsibility lies with the big parties of the left in Spain, Europe and the world. Following the fall of the Wall they embraced neoliberalism, they promoted right-wing policies and they unravelled the meaning of the left. Suddenly, people came to the conclusion that being on the left or the right was the same thing because both of them rescued the banking sector and they attacked social rights. The responsibility for this left-right axis no longer being a reference point is not the people’s, but of the social democratic parties who have betrayed certain values and policies. The citizens have found other ways to refer to the same values: they talk about human rights, democracy, of those below against those on top…if we are talking about the same values and objectives, labels do not matter.
Is Guanyem a left organisation or one from below?
Both. There is a virtue in having people who had never participated in politics, who do not see themselves in terms of the left-right axis and who see Guanyem as a useful tool because it focuses on objectives. But there are also people who come from a left tradition. If you stand for certain values, you find them.
In Greece the left was remade nearly 10 years ago, with the creation of Syriza. Is this the line to follow?
We all have to make an effort to change mindset, it is not just a problem with Izquerda Unida. When people tell me we have to kick people out and put people like me in instead, I tell them: “You shouldn’t have to put your trust in me. What we need to do is change the rules of the game”. And that involves everything. From the ways of practising politics, to parties and the political institutions. Why is it that we want to win? Not for a passing of the baton from one generation to the next, or for a change of acronyms, but rather to change the overall institutional set-up, which until now has served to kidnap democracy. So that it is citizens who take the lead, regardless of who is in power and what acronym they go under. There will be places like Barcelona where, with approaches such as Guanyem there will have to be a coming together with other formations with a longer tradition, and other new ones, so as to join forces. Elsewhere, they may need to go about it separately and then make pacts after the elections. The ultimate objective of democracy must be citizen participation.
What future awaits the PSOE?
I think it is very bleak. The choice of Pedro Sánchez, where they’re trying to put someone in who seems younger, is a marketing operation, but in reality they have a structure and a set of clientelist networks that they have been operating in for more than 30 years. If Sánchez really wants to change things, he should remove all their top brass from big businesses and put an end to the phenomenon of revolving doors. It is in his hands to convince us whether he wants change. No-one believes the little marketing operations, because people are sick of seeing them. The structure of the PSOE forms part of the problem. But that doesn’t mean showing contempt for its tradition, its activists and its voters. They will have to seek out another space. The PSOE, as a structure of power, is part of the past.
To which organisation do you feel closer, IU or Podemos?
There should be a more detailed and more rounded analysis. I have no doubt that Alberto Garzón is a very competent person who is very close to the processes that are underway. He and others in IU. But beyond the switching about of faces, people are looking for a change in the ways of doing politics. Izquierda Unida ought to move strongly in this direction. The name IU is not going to lead this process of a citizen revolution. Obviously it is going to form part of it, to the degree that they wish to be involved. But they are not going to lead it, it is impossible. The problem for IU is not Podemos. It has had the perfect context for growth during the crisis…and it did not grow. That means there are ways of doing politics, there are ways of speaking, and there are also responsibilities because there have been serious corruption cases such as Bankia…and that weighs it down. It is clear that Podemos has worked not only because it makes TV appearances.
Will Garzón be able to change IU?
The people involved matter, and they can play a leadership role, but major transformations are not carried out by just one person. If Alberto Garzón is where he is it’s because he has the ability to lead, but he must be part of something bigger. I don’t have a regular direct contact with IU and I can’t speak with great knowledge of what is going on. From what I do know, it is quite divided, with two souls: one in favour of renewal and another that clings to the language and the ways of operating that have worked in previous decades.
Podemos has major need of middle cadres. Will they be there in time for 2015?
Yes, we built the PAH up from nothing.
But we’re talking about governing a country here.
Yes, I know. But up till now the ones we have had have been completely useless. To call them cadres is to denigrate politics. There is a load of mediocrities who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. Starting with the Prime Minister, who hides from the press because every time he opens his mouth he puts his foot in it. I see a public that has the best educated generation in history. And it has shown this in many things. For example, in the PAH, starting off from nothing, with no resources. It is a movement with more than 200 cells, made up with people who are ruined, depressed, culturally excluded, very precarious…we have achieved things that they told us from the institutions were impossible. In Barcelona we now see the co-operative sector, of the social economy, where there is already another system working. Not only are there people a lot more capable of governing better than those who are there now. We need to be prudent and know that we are going to make mistakes because we are human. But we have to do it because if we don’t, it will be worse.
Podemos is not only trying to attract voters but also activists from Izquierda Unida. Do you think the latter will have to dissolve itself?
Let IU decide that, I’m not going to tell them what they have to do. They have very many excellent people. I am against radical novelty, this idea that everything has to be new and what is old is of no use. I have been in social activism for years and I have learned from veterans from all over the place. In IU there are many people to learn from, from their commitment and their involvement. And we are going to be alongside those people, however they call themselves. What we need to do is prioritise the methods and the way of practising politics. Acronyms cannot be an obstacle for the process. If IU, as an acronym, is of no use to the general process of change, this is something they need to think about. But it is a sovereign decison for them. If Guanyem proves no longer of any use for whatever reason, we will change, and that’s that. We need to think about not getting caught up in acronyms, which doesn’t mean renouncing the past, nor tradition, nor history. We need to learn from history, and we need to hold on to it, along with the commitment of many people.
Do you see the makings of an electoral change in 2015?
Yes. We are going to see big changes. The end of two-partyism will come closer. But not everything will be fixed because of that. A change of paradigm does not get done in a day, or in a year. What is uncertain is how far powers that be will try and stop this. They are already trying to discredit us. The banks control most of the mass media. They are not going to make it easy for us but let’s see how far they go. We the citizens do not have economic power, nor political power, nor judicial, nor media power…but we are the majority. And we have discovered that if we organise, we have a good deal more power than what they told us we had. We are going to have to be strong and brave this year.