Ten Months with Barcelona en Comú

This story was co-authored by Steve Hughes and Valery Alzaga.

What happened?

Whatever else your hear, let’s be clear: Barcelona en Comú is not going anywhere. In the city’s system of proportional representation, they are tied with the main opposition party for seats in City Hall. A historic 64% of voters in the city voted for a left-wing candidate, and Barcelona won 6 out of 10 of the city’s districts. The opposition won only 2 city districts. In the immediate term, BComú has the task of negotiating a governing coalition for the city. Anything can still happen.

What is clear is that this race was one of the most polarized and challenging campaigns in recent memory. The electorate split on the question of independence, which created particularly unfavorable terrain for Ada Colau who tried to rise above the fray and focus on the business of Spain’s second largest city.

That said, what happened on election day? Campaigning in the wake of the political crisis provoked by the Catalunyan independence referendum of 2017, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), rose on the strength of its leftist articulation of the Catalunyan independence movement. Likewise, the success for the center-left socialist party (PSOE) happened across Spain. This affected Barcelona more than was expected, taking critical votes from Barcelona en Comú, and giving the ERC the slimmest of overall vote margins.

What is clear is that this race was one of the most polarized and challenging campaigns in recent memory. The electorate split on the question of independence, which created particularly unfavorable terrain for Ada Colau who tried to rise above the fray and focus on the business of Spain’s second largest city. Watching as outsiders, we often had the feeling that Ada was saying, “you boys fight over independence. I am going to get to work.” With a fragmented electorate, combined with a hostile press, there is little doubt that Ada’s positioning on independence angered both sides, and it surely cost her votes.

A process 3 years in the making

There are many stories to be told from this election. We will focus on the one that we know best. Over the past many months we have had the opportunity to spend time with the BComú campaign team to help them develop a door-to-door base-building project. We ran trainings, and for several months we met weekly with their field team. In the end, a core group of Barcelona staff and intrepid volunteers knocked on 26,000 doors in targeted neighborhoods, doing the day-in-and-day-out work to, as we liked to say, “take the movement of the squares to the doorstep.”

There are many stories to be told from this election. We will focus on the one that we know best.

Let’s go back to the very beginning. In 2015 the Working Families Party organized our first delegation of WFP leaders to go to Barcelona. It was shortly after Barcelona en Comú’s remarkable election success. Ada Colau had just become Mayor, placed in the fragile position of running a minority government with 11 out of 41 seats on the city council.

Key members of the door-to-door team: (from L to R) Valery Alzaga, Nelini Stamp, Steve Hughes, Kate Shea Baird, and Bea Martinez

On that day in October several years ago, we wandered into a controlled chaos of large meetings of mostly-young volunteers, in a hastily assembled campaign office, with mismatched furniture and tangles of electrical wires gathering in the corners. We met with Kate Shea Baird, one of the leaders of the BComú International Committee. We would later go on to meet Kate again on a different WFP delegation to Berlin and then work with her to lay initial plans for what would become the Fearless Cities conference that brought over 700 “municipalists” to Barcelona from every continent on the globe.

However, on that day Kate seemed to be in a hurry, and one had the feeling we were but one of very many foreign delegations she had greeted since their election success a few months before. As we talked, it was suggested that WFP and BComú should work together on the idea of teaching door-to-door campaign skills to BComú activists. (We had just come to Barcelona from Germany, where a large part of our time had been spent teaching a day-long canvassing workshop to activists and leaders of Die Linke, the German left party.) Kate greeted the idea politely, but BComú clearly had bigger problems on their hands at that point, so nothing much came of it.

Learning about the “art and science” of door-to-door campaigning.

It is a testament to the power of building long-term relationships between organizations that several years later we were able to invite two leaders from BComú to participate in the WFP’s first ever Spring School political education event in Las Vegas. Our friend from the first delegation, Kate, arranged for Marina Lopez, a leader of Ada Colau’s communications team in city hall and who, together with Kate, had recently been elected as a member of the “next generation” of leaders on the BComú executive board. With BComú’s re-election campaign coming up the next year, Marina came back from the Spring School inspired that BComú needed to invest the energy into building up a core group of “super volunteers,” and that her organization needed to find a way to learn from and adapt door-to-door campaigning for BComú’s re-election campaign. Marina and Kate became a force for a new kind of campaigning within BComú, and their leadership set the stage for the launch of a door-to-door program in Barcelona.

Everyone is an expert in their own story

Our door-to-door campaigning journey with BComú began in earnest in the summer of 2018. We met for an introductory training with key leaders and staff. We met in a slightly upgraded space over their original campaign office with a work-in-progress childcare facility, social center with a café/bar, and an under-construction meeting hall that was being appointed with air conditioning and walls that could partition to allow for more breakout meeting spaces.

We knew going in we would have approximately 20 people at the event — a mix of young people and old; people who were leaders of BComú‘s youth faction, retirees who had found a political home in BComú, and several neighborhood level councilors.

We knew from our conversations ahead of time that the trials of three years in government during some of the most turbulent political times the country has known in the last many decades had taken their toll on people.

We began the day with a round of stories. We knew from our conversations ahead of time that the trials of three years in government during some of the most turbulent political times the country has known in the last many decades had taken their toll on people. The honeymoon for BComú was long over, with the opposition parties purposely blocking any initiative BComú put forward in preparation for the next year’s elections, and members of their activist base openly wondering if they had become “too institutionalized.” So for our round of introductions we asked people to speak about why they got involved with BComú, and “what was the moment you knew it was the right decision?” As people went around the room a quiet momentum was building and a sense of togetherness for the group was already starting to gel.

Left to Right: Nelini, Valery, Ada

By way of modeling story-telling, we each told our own stories of getting involved in politics. Valery spoke about the hospital closing in her town in the UK and her mother’s recent death, and why she had found her way to involvement in Corbyn’s Labour Party. Steve used his story to speak about some of the tales he had heard from his years working as a union organizer that had gotten under his skin, and how those had changed him. He told that he had for a long time been skeptical about politics as an enterprise that helped “powerful people gain more power,” as opposed to his passion for organizing which he viewed as helping “people without power gain it.”

“I think we are slowly starting to lose our fear”

In addition to trying to recapture some of that lost “15M spirit,” we focused on stories because we knew the fear people had about door-to-door canvassing was going to present a big obstacle in the room. The fear of “what if I don’t know all the answers” is hard enough to overcome with an activist in the US who is going on the doors for the first time. However, these fears were compounded with cultural concerns such as, “this may work in United States, but people in Catalunya are just different.” We knew there would be a large wall of anxiety to overcome from the outset.

Practicing one-on-one communication.

As Valery moved the group through a presentation on the art and science of door-to-door campaigning, all the fears you might expect to hear slowly started to surface from the group. Thanks to our storytelling in the beginning, there was a sufficient well of trust already built up in the room, and people were comfortable to bring those fears into the space. We dealt with them one by one.

One point in particular stood out as a turning point (in fact, one of the executive board members present named this as the thing he would be taking with him from the day) — namely, someone raised the concern of invading people’s privacy. Steve was asked to respond to this. He mentioned how he had recently been at the Working Families Party National Committee meeting where Maurice Mitchell, the WFP’s new Executive Director, had said something that stuck with him: “cynicism is a project of the right.” Steve said that he would adapt Maurice’s words to speak to the notion of “privacy” — the kind of privacy where no one knows their neighbor. This kind of “privacy” is also a project of the right. It keeps us separated, and this is exactly what we need to push through. Valery then chimed in that this is an idea rooted in individualism, and in a laugh-out-loud moment, someone exclaimed, “what are we talking about…we have the words ‘en comú’ in our name!”

“What are we talking about…we have the words ‘en comú’ in our name!”

Over lunch I sat with a woman who was a neighborhood councilor in the district where she had been born and to where she had recently moved back. I asked her how she felt the training was going, and her comment was, “I think we are slowly starting to lose our fear.”

By the time the afternoon rolled around, the energy of the group was noticeably higher. When they had been paired before lunch to prepare a role-played conversation, participants were a bit slow to start. Some pairs actually had to be told that the purpose of the exercise was to work together! However, after lunch they immediately jumped into their pairs. The buzz of the room was a beautiful thing to behold.

By the end of the day, people were ready. As one person said, we started the day not wanting to talk to anyone, and by the end we were ready to kick down their doors. (He demonstrated his point with a slightly off-balance karate kick.) Marina, who from the time she returned from the WFP Spring School till then had felt like the “crazy one” trying to convince people they should give this door-to-door campaigning a try, was over the moon. People were finally getting it!

The Independence Movement

We spent the last part of our training focused on the question of answering common concerns. How do we listen to and affirm a concern and then redirect the person we are speaking with to something more productive? Of course, the independista movement is anything but a common concern. It is uniquely Catalunyan. It cuts across lines of left and right, and there are political formations of all stripes on both sides of the question. So a good deal of this part of our training was spent thinking about how BComú — a political organization decidedly on neither side of this question — should acknowledge and then redirect away from the “stay or go” frame. How do we focus people on the things that will actually make their lives in this city better?

Planning the next stage of volunteer mobilization.

As this very Catalunyan example may indicate, there can be nothing cookie-cutter about how we introduce skills of political campaigning that were developed over years in the United States into a new cultural context. Some things are universal — like the power of stories and talking face to face with another human being — but we very consciously approached this training not as teaching the “one method” of door-to-door, but rather we tried to impart it as a flexible tool that can be used at different times of a campaign, with different goals. We had people create their own raps to help them internalize the process of translating their campaign, or their big ideas, or their accomplishments/challenges into something that can be readily understood on the doors.

By the end of the two days working groups had been formed and the volunteers had identified 85 people from their cell phone contact lists that they were going to invite to the September training and blitz.

At the end of the training we spent two hours talking about how to organize the September blitz with the volunteers. By the end of the two days working groups had been formed and the volunteers had identified 85 people from their cell phone contact lists that they were going to invite to the September training and blitz. As we did one last go-round with the group, Steve shared with the participants what he was feeling at that moment: that BComú‘s victory in 2015 had inspired people around the world, and we needed to protect that victory as something very precious. After spending two days with these remarkable leaders, he told them that he was leaving with the feeling that a sleeping giant had been awakened.

Epilogue: Bannon’s flight path

Finally, a word about populism. In an article a while ago about Steve Bannon traveling back and forth from the US to support the radical right wing movements in Europe, there is a story about Bannon’s meeting with Matteo Salvini, the leader of the The League (formerly known as The Northern League) in Italy. Bannon is very clear on the subject of populism. He reported having told Salvini, “You are the first guys who can really break the left and right paradigm. You can show that populism is the new organizing principle.” [emphasis added]

…too many in our orbit are still getting wrapped around the axel of holding up a platonic ideal of liberal democracy, and cringing at the mention of the word “populism” as a threat to that ideal. We are forgetting that what we need to do is do the messy, time-consuming work of digging deep into communities, organizing, and fighting back.

Very few people in or near our world in the US or Europe — but especially in Europe — are this clear about the role of populism in this day an age. While parties of the center left (and even the further left) of Europe are trying to modify their positions on issues such as migration to stop the bleeding of native-born working class voters to the radical right, too many in our orbit are still getting wrapped around the axel of holding up a platonic ideal of liberal democracy, and cringing at the mention of the word “populism” as a threat to that ideal. We are forgetting that what we need to do is do the messy, time-consuming work of digging deep into communities, organizing, and fighting back. If some would shy away from this as “too populist,” we would respectfully observe that we may very well then be standing on the sidelines as the game is being played. For all we know, we might even be in the wrong stadium!

So what to do with all this? Well, we don’t know exactly. But our experience with Barcelona over the last many months has got us thinking. How can we scale up our ambitions in a serious way to meet the challenge that rightwing populism (still) poses to the European and American bodies politic? How can we accelerate the work of building organization-to-organization solidarity when we most certainly won’t have the money Steve Bannon has, nor the caché of being a former advisor to the President of the United States? Because this election is over, but there are more to come.

Organizer and educator with over 20 years of movement experience. From the US, living in Europe. Creating the ties that bind for international power building.