It’s been a torrid 12 months for Spain. The country is convulsed by crises on several fronts and it is hard to see where a resolution will come from. Not only is the fallout from the illegal Catalan declaration of independence proving problematic – the new president, Quim Torra, is arguably more hard-line than the last – but a corruption scandal is threatening to topple the ruling party.
But this only provides so much distraction from a more troubling story: that of the economy. Improved overall growth figures cannot conceal the ongoing rise in precarious and poorly paid work which increasingly characterises the Spanish economy.
Rents in Spain have been rising 12 times faster than salaries; the typical salary of young workers entering the labour market is 33% lower today than it was in 2008; and about 90% of new employment contracts signed in 2015 were for temporary positions. Unemployment peaked at 27% in 2013 and has since fallen, but it remains twice that of the Eurozone average. And the country also holds the unenviable distinction of having the third highest rate of child poverty in the EU (after Romania and Greece).
But these broad-brush statistics don’t tell the full story. Others have done pretty well out of Spain’s descent into recession a decade ago: the wealthiest 1% saw its share of national wealth increase from 17% in 2011 to 20% in 2014, according to the Bank of Spain. Indeed, it is the poorest 25% who have suffered the biggest loss of wealth since 2011, with the bottom quarter in debt by an average of €1,300.
It’s a disparity that can be seen starkly in the contrast between the undeveloped south, areas such as Andalusia and Murcia, and cities such as Madrid and Barcelona. The average salary in the Madrid suburb of Pozuelo de Alarcón is €73,000, while in Torrevieja, a province of Alicante, it is just €13,000. A summer holiday resort that attracts its fair share of British pensioners in search of sea, sun and sangria, Torrevieja experiences challenges similar to towns like Blackpool, with many of the local jobs vanishing during the winter months. The nearby city of Elda, another tourist destination, was listed as having the highest number of residents out of work in the whole of Spain in 2015, with an astonishing 40% of residents without a job.
The south east, you could call it flyover Spain, was particularly badly hit by the decline of construction. And white elephants – all those abandoned building projects – dot the landscape after toxic debt burst the building bubble and brought down the country’s banks.1
Nor is it only rural areas that are still suffering. Despite being nominally Spain’s third city, Valencia is very much treated as flyover country by Spanish elites. New home stock in the city has fallen by 35% since 2009. With the disappearance of new building projects, large numbers of jobs – and with them incomes – have disappeared too. In 2014 it was estimated that a quarter of all Valencia’s inhabitants were living in poverty. And once you are on the way to the bottom it often takes very little to sink a few more rungs. A street count carried out in Valencia in 2016 by the homelessness charity Bokatas found that over 400 people were sleeping rough in the city – far more than the official estimate of 79 people made the previous year.
The rise of outsider parties in Spain was undoubtedly rooted in the inability of mainstream parties to deal effectively with this fallout, generated by the financial crash, and the growing inequality in the country. But equally, the Left has spectacularly failed to take the lead on dealing with the corruption scandal currently engulfing the Rajoy government – El País has called it “the largest corruption scandal in Spain’s democratic history” – nevermind the wider economic malaise.
As a result, Pedro Sanchez’s opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) continues to underperform in the polls – though Sanchez may yet win power through a vote of no confidence to oust Rajoy. And much of the ruling Popular Party’s (PP) disillusioned support is peeling off to the new centre-right party Ciudadanos. Indeed, a Metroscopia poll taken earlier this year found that Ciudadanos, led by the 38-year-old lawyer Albert Rivera, would receive the most votes were an election to be held today, with the party on course to secure 27% of the vote. This would be a hugely significant result for a party that was only founded in 2005.
Ciudadanos has benefited significantly from its staunch opposition to Catalonian independence and its tough talk on corruption. In Catalonia, where the party first emerged, it has taken a harder stance on immigration, and proposed burqa and niqab bans in public spaces. But it is also attracting middle class voters with a Macron-esque promise of cosmetic rather than radical change.
Perhaps emphasising the extent to which populism in Spain is increasingly dominated by the centre-right is the plight of Podemos. The insurgent left-wing party finished third with 20% of the vote at the 2015 election. It has since slipped back into fourth place and can now rely on the support of around 17% of the electorate. As I predicted for UnHerd last year, the party’s decision in 2016 to forge an electoral pact with the old Spanish Communist Party (PCE) has put a ceiling on the number of voters it could attract from the centre.
What is more, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has been accused of hypocrisy after it was revealed that he and his partner, the party’s parliamentary spokeswoman Irene Montero, purchased an exclusive property worth over half a million Euros situated on the outskirts of Madrid. So much for Iglesias’ – and by extension Podemos’ – wider reputation as modest, self-abnegating idealists, especially at a time when so many in Spain are struggling.
The struggle of Spain’s hard-up classes will sound familiar to many voters across Europe. But so too the inability of the Spanish Left to capitalise on the discrediting of elites – and more broadly to figure out what its purpose is in the twenty-first century.