In 2015, a new left coalition, Barcelona en Comú, took control of the municipal government in Barcelona. Led by housing activist Ada Colau, the party did what Podemos couldn’t do nationally and garnered enough support to govern with the intention of implementing a left program, at least at the municipal level.
To get a sense of the plans, accomplishments, and challenges faced by Barcelona en Comú just over a year into its mandate, Michal Rozworski spoke with Yusef Quadura.
Aside from being a member of Barcelona en Comú’s international group, Yusef is also part of the party’s coordinating committee in the Gracia district and a substitute councilor for the Gracia district council.
Describe how Barcelona en Comú was formed.
Around the summer of 2014, Ada Colau, who was an important local activist, decided to create this platform which would eventually go to the municipal elections.
The idea was to create a wide front — one that would combine left parties with people who are not involved in politics but who are starting to see the importance and the need of actually doing something. That was the main idea behind it.
It took many months for this to be created, but at the end four big left parties (some of them dating from the 1930s) formed Barcelona en Comú together with a lot of normal people who never participated in politics but at this moment felt like they needed to and they wanted something different.
So, on the one hand you had an older left, and on the other, the newly politicized.
Yes; it was very interesting, because the new people had something to bring to the table, the need to do something and positive energy, while the people who were already in political parties brought experience and know-how.
In broad terms, what was the program that Barcelona en Comú took to the elections that it ended up winning? What were the main planks of the platform?
If I had to summarize the program in one sentence, it would be defending the public good, especially in this time of crisis. We’ve seen during the past eight years how privatizations have become something extremely normal. We don’t even notice them anymore!
We felt the need to explain that this cannot be happening, that we need to defend what’s ours, what’s everybody’s. That was the main idea behind the whole campaign and the whole program.
Going into some detail: first of all, before even the official coalition agreement between the four parties, there was a weekend-long meeting where everyone met to create a separate “ethical” agreement.
We agreed to things like limits on the salaries of public representatives or what to do when there’s a corruption case. The point was to give people the confidence and the trust in us that we will actually do things for the public good and not for our personal gain.
Onto the program: one of the general ideas is defending basic rights. In the case of housing, we think that everyone has the right to have electricity, water and gas, whether they can pay for it or not. We can’t afford to have people in Barcelona, a rich city, living without heat in the winter.
We also campaigned on making democracy more transparent with people being able to participate easily. We want to change the way the city works.
For example, right now, Barcelona is very dependent on tourism. We like tourism, but we don’t think we should only depend on it, because things can go wrong and then we’ll be left with nothing. That’s something we need to avoid.
The next question that naturally arises for me is how much of that you’ve been able to accomplish.
First of all, we’ve run a huge campaign to make Barcelona a sanctuary city for refugees. We don’t really have the power to bring in refugees because that’s essentially within EU jurisdiction, but we can put pressure on them. We’ve created a huge network of such cities all over Europe.
We’ve also created fines for banks that own empty flats. They have to pay a large fine every few years for not renting them out. Alongside, we’ve increased the amount of social housing.
Right now, something very exciting we’re working on is the creation of a municipal power company which will be buying and selling electricity to consumers. It will be company policy to not allow people to go without electricity if they can’t pay for it.
We’ve also increased transparency. Every city government has a city plan which is elaborated during the first year of its mandate. We created an online platform and held over five hundred meetings all over the city around different themes where people proposed their own ideas for the plan.
These were then voted on, and at the end of the process, which was about five months long, the most-voted ideas were among those included in the city plan for the next four years.
We’ve also created a separate plan for hotels and tourist housing because it’s getting out of control.
Airbnb and the rest of it?
Yes. The whole center of the city is becoming totally inaccessible, a fully tourist area. This is not right because it breaks the city into pieces.
By pushing people out and creating dead zones where people aren’t living?
Exactly. I don’t even think it’s even good for tourists, because they end up going to a zone where they just see more tourists! We have a citywide plan that allows hotels to be created in some areas but not in others that are already saturated.
We’ve implemented environmental measures such as connecting the two trams from the two different sides of the city. We want to reduce private car use and push people to take public transport, because Barcelona is one of the worst cities in Europe when it comes to air quality.
We’ve been fined a million times. This has to be stopped, because at the end of the day it’s the air we’re breathing. Those are main accomplishments in one year . . . it’s not a long time!
But the flip side of any success are the challenges. What have they been?
I’m especially curious how hard the anti-privatization measures and the expansion of the public good you mentioned have been to implement under a regime of austerity coming down from the federal and regional levels. In Spain the crisis was very severe and the austerity response has been very severe as well.
One of the main challenges we face is that the media is constantly against us, even before the elections.
Given the way every newspaper and every TV channel was working against us it’s really surprising we even won. Well, maybe not surprising, but still incredible.
That’s one of the main challenges, because at the end of the day the media is manipulating public opinion, and we need to sustain public support, otherwise this all wouldn’t be happening.
Another challenge is that we’re ruling in a minority. We only have eleven councilors on the city council, which means we need the support of other left groups.
The problem is that there are a lot of contradictions. These other groups have other interests, on the Catalan level, for example.
Sometimes just to avoid the image of “we’re with these people,” they can’t vote with us. I can see why they’re doing it, but, then, you can’t be a left party and then vote against the left ideas that we’re proposing. Even so, we’re trying to work through it.
What are the powers to raise money that the city government has and what are some of the ways that you could potentially expand them?
First of all, we receive some funds from the federal level, but also we create some here locally. Probably the most important local source is the property, or housing, tax.
We’ve reformed this tax recently. Keeping everything else the same, we increased rates for the higher-ranking owners. We believe that if you have one house, we’re not going to come and take your money or whatever, even though that’s what the newspapers want people to think.
But if someone’s truly wealthy, we believe that they should be paying more. It’s just fair. They should be paying more proportionally because they can afford more.
Of course, tourism is right now also one of the other sources of income. Other than that, there’s public companies, of which we don’t have many left, but they too are a major income source.
And, as I was saying before, we’re working on re-municipalizing the water and electricity, for example. Those are ways of obtaining revenue but also getting back some power over our economy to the local government.
Going back to what you said about the other left parties: I think you hinted at this, but what is your relationship to the independence question here in Catalonia? Do you try to avoid it because you’re a wide popular front?
In short, we defend the referendum option. We don’t defend doing anything unilaterally. The parties that are inside Barcelona en Comú were already defending the referendum option even before Barcelona en Comú was born.
We never defended doing anything that doesn’t go through that route because the only way to do something this important and this big is to have real knowledge of what people want.
Ada Colau, now your mayor of Barcelona, was a well-known housing activist. How has Barcelona en Comú been able to carry forward this spirit of activism into more institutionalized politics?
And how do you maintain both the support and the energy that you talked about of the newly politicized now that power is more institutionalized and you actually have to work through it?
First of all, you have to take into consideration that a large portion of the people that were inside of Barcelona en Comú were already in politics, and we were pretty used to losing because . . . well, the Left has been used to it pretty much everywhere the last few decades!
So for us frustration is not so much a problem as it is for the newcomers. They can get frustrated much faster. I think people who were already in politics were able to maintain regular meetings and just keep working.
A lot of the new people probably started and then quit, because they didn’t like how it worked or they got bored or maybe they had a different idea of how it would be done. A lot of people think perhaps that things are easier than they really are. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of effort.
Right now of course we have, let’s say, the more institutional side, which is our representatives, but then we also have the district assemblies.
The district assemblies work on ideas for their districts, while other, thematic groups work on specific topics, like health, energy, and so on.
Together they create a kind of wheel: the assemblies give support to the institutions and vice versa. It’s a back-and-forth relationship.
Have you been able to maintain numbers at the assemblies?
It’s been a lot better than would be expected. I wouldn’t say everyone is still there, but I would have expected more people to disappear. Let’s say there was maybe 20 percent more people at the beginning. This kind of attrition is very normal.
One of the main problems we had before we created this huge front was the disconnect between politics and people. I come from a party that defends the working class for over a century, but people didn’t see that. They wouldn’t connect.
What’s amazing about this, and Ada Colau has a big part in it, is the reconnection. The people who are still there are very committed, and I think it shows that they will be staying. This is very good.