A growing international tendency that should concern political activists is the rightward turn of working-class voters.
In the United States, workers’ support determined the election of the ultra-rightist Donald Trump, presenting himself as fighting neo-liberalism and the globalisation policies of the ruling Democratic Party, seen as driving American industry overseas. In France, workers supported the French ultra-right, led by Marine Le Pen, to protest against the ultra-liberal policies of the Hollande (Socialist Party) government and the weakening of French identity, seen as menaced by the European integration promoted by that government. The famous “red belt” of Paris switched allegiance from the French Communist Party to Le Pen’s formation.
The political left has been unable to reverse this transnational tendency.
Similar tendencies emerged in the recent Catalan elections, reported internationally as a battle between Catalan separatists and unionists. The forces involved are best understood as follows: 30 per cent of Catalans are separatists and want a break with Spain, ideally in the form of an independent Catalan republic. More than 50 per cent are home-rulers, i.e. would support the Spanish connection, inside a federal Spain. Unionists are for the status quo.
The parties that represented these groups in the recent elections are, respectively, the separatist neo-liberal Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalunya) and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya—Republican Left of Catalunya (ERC), which in coalition formed the outgoing government, dissolved by Spain on constitutional grounds on its declaring Catalunya an independent republic. They were supported by the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular—People’s Unity Candidacy (CUP), a far-left separatist party but one that always gives priority to the national question when the chips are down.
The opposition was formed by the leftish middle-of-the-road Socialist Party of Catalunya (PSC), the militantly unionist and pro-business Ciutadans (Citizens), the left-wing home-rule party En Comú Podem (Together We Can), and the Spanish right-wing Partido Popular, Spain’s ruling party.
Junts (known formerly as Convergència), linked to the defunct Christian Democrats, ruled Catalunya for the duration of many legislatures. It now defines itself as “revolutionary,” i.e. as seeking an independent Catalan republic, within the European Union. It has always given priority to national rather than social aims, imposing its neo-liberal economic and social diktat on its coalition partner, a compliant ERC.
Incredibly corrupt by Irish standards, Junts controlled the public media of the Catalan regional government, TV3, and Catalunya Radio, and distributed generous private media subventions—bribes—from public funds. A companion party of Fianna Fáil in the EU Parliament, it has been paying itself through an extensive network of corruption, whose astonishing reach was recently revealed on a popular independent Spanish television channel, La Sexta (The Sixth) and in recent sensational court proceedings.
ERC, which overtook Junts in the recent electoral race, seems to have put its progressive social programme on hold at the behest of its conservative coalition partner.
The well-financed Ciutadans, founded in Barcelona in 2006, with a rumoured boost of €1 million plus from the Irish millionaire Declan Ganley, channelled anti-establishment sentiment into support for itself. It associated its Spanish (i.e. anti-Catalan) nationalism with progress, singing dumb about its own extreme neo-liberalism. (Ciutadans was lauded in the bought mainstream Spanish press; no account of the huge resources employed to promote the party nor, still less, of its neo-liberal economic policies spoiled the celebration.)
The most recent expression of Convergència rule, the government led by Carles Puigdemont (before the Spanish government pulled the plug), is exalted, curiously, by some Irish socialists and republicans, though it pushed through labour “reforms” and deep cuts in social spending while increasing its support for religious (i.e. Opus Dei) Catholic schools for the privileged, thus alienating workers.
Most working-class voters, descendants of waves of migration from rural Spain to industrial Catalunya, are Spanish-speaking, speaking Catalan as a second language, and are largely loyal to Spain. Inveigled by the pro-Spanish propaganda of Ciutadans, and angry at the anti-working-class policies of the Puigdemont government, they voted heavily this time round for Ciutadans and not for the Spanish Partido Popular, an older working-class enemy.
This tendency was especially marked in the working-class areas of Barcelona and Tarragona, where most Catalan workers are concentrated. Electoral data shows that in electoral districts of below-average incomes an unpredicted 35–40 per cent of the electorate voted for Ciutadans. But Ciutadans achieved its highest vote (42 per cent) in Barcelona’s richest district, Pedralbes.
The dominant class always has a more developed sense of where its real interests lie than other social groupings. Its predictable support of Ciutadans, unlike that of Catalan workers, responded to its class interests.
The centrality of the Catalan independence theme in the period before the election doomed the social theme to electoral irrelevance. This, and the Kamikaze-like voting behaviour of a working class that abandoned left-wing options on election day, opted for the most militantly neo-liberal formation available, thus ensuring the decisive victory of the right. Ciutadans jumped from 25 seats in the previous parliament to 37, becoming the most voted-for party.
However, the Junts-ERC bipartisan machine, with 66 seats, came close to the 69 seats required to ensure a voting majority in the new parliament. With the help of the CUP (4 seats), and after sorting out many serious internal difficulties and defections, it may just be able to assemble the majority necessary to form a new conservative government.
Thus a strongly neo-liberal government and a strongly neo-liberal opposition are the likely outcome of the recent Catalan election. The region’s workers will pay for allowing themselves to be bamboozled.