Social democracy has had persistent objectives over time. However, their policies to achieve these objectives have varied substantially. Thus, after a first wave of nationalizations in the postwar period, the social democratic parties tended to opt for welfare policies in a mixed economy. The turn consisted of a mixture of Keynesian policies, provision of public goods by the State, promotion of equal opportunities through education, protection of need through a minimum vital income and a mix of contributory and non-contributory pensions, as well as a progressive tax system. This turn was expressed in two very influential experiences. One was the German SPD congress in Bad Godesberg held in 1959. The other was the Labor government of Harold Wilson in the UK from 1964.
If we stick to the Spanish case, the electoral triumph of the PSOE in 1982 was due not only to the crisis of the right, but also to a revision of its program in the 1979 congress. After the long and cruel dictatorship and after five years of governments Unstable during the Transition, the socialist government of Felipe González inherited inflation reaching a rate of 15%, unemployment at 16.2% and a public deficit equivalent to 5.6% of GDP.
González’s management will undoubtedly go down in history. Democracy was strengthened, the economy was modernized, a national health system was created, pensions were reinforced by also introducing non-contributory pensions, free education was established up to 16 years of age financed by public funds. Perhaps because of that initial period, the Socialist Party has governed Spain for 25 years compared to the 16 years that the right has governed.
The following government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero greatly reinforced freedoms. He approved a Historical Memory Law to allow the recovery of victims of Francoism by their families. Same-sex marriage was also legalized. The Socialist government also approved a Dependency Law that provided support to people in need. An abortion law was introduced that improved the situation of women faced with this dramatic decision. Measures to combat gender violence were reinforced. The Government managed to put an end to ETA’s terrorist activity. And he made the decision to withdraw the Spanish troops from Iraq. As a contrast, the attack on Iraq by the Popular Party government led by José María Aznar, against the opposition of 91% of Spaniards (according to 2003 CIS data).
The results of the Zapatero government were considerable for a time. The ratio of the unemployed to the active population fell by three percentage points. Investment in R+D+i went from representing 1.06% to 1.2% of GDP (still far from the European average of 1.8%).
Zapatero once declared that “the program of a modern left goes through a well-governed economy, with a surplus in public accounts and a limited public sector. All this combined with the extension of civil and social rights” (April 16, 2006). Thus, the minimum wage was increased by 22%, the minimum pension by 36%, scholarships by 80% compared to 2004, and in education the itineraries that introduced very early discrimination were suppressed.
Its dramatic problem lay in the international financial crisis unleashed in the United States after the fall of Lehman Brothers and in the strong increase in the prices of raw materials. But his legacy has been very great in terms of citizen rights and social equity (for example, the lowest income decile increased their participation in the country’s total income by 17.9%).
The current government of Pedro Sánchez has achieved considerable results in a very short time. Conditions have been particularly difficult. On the one hand, the terrible covid pandemic since 2020; on the other, the first war unleashed in Europe since 1945, due to the bloody invasion of Ukraine carried out by Vladimir Putin. At the same time, Pedro Sánchez presides over the first coalition government since the recovery of democracy. The Executive is supported by a diversity of parliamentary groups.
While in Spain it is an unknown experience, coalition governments have been the rule in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands or Portugal. And not only do they last longer, but they redistribute income more (the richest 10% have 3.4 times the income of the poorest 10%; on the contrary, in countries with monocolor governments the difference is 4.7 times).
Despite all the difficulties, the Sánchez government has carried out a typically social-democratic policy with considerable effectiveness. His policies have dignified democracy, eliminating humiliating symbols of the dictatorship (such as the Valley of the Fallen) or approving a new Democratic Memory Law (which facilitates the recovery of the remains of victims of war and dictatorship). His economic policy has offered, within the difficulties of the pandemic and the war, appreciable results. To give an example, in 2022 the economies of the eurozone countries grew on average by 3.5% while the Spanish economy grew by 5.5%. The unemployment rate has been 12.9% of the active population in 2022 —in comparison, it stood at 20.4% in 2010 and 19.1% in 1996—. In turn, inflation reached 5.6% in 2022, while in the euro zone it represented 9.2%.
Regarding social policies, pensions have increased in parallel with the CPI, maintaining their purchasing power in difficult times. Rent caps have also been approved; the minimum wage has been increased and a “vital minimum income” has been introduced to reduce poverty. The labor market has improved, putting a stop to temporary jobs, introducing discontinuous permanent contracts (which prevent the unemployment of temporary workers) and indefinite labor contracts. Two reforms have improved education: on the one hand, the celáa law (suppressing the discriminatory educational itineraries reintroduced under the PP government with Mariano Rajoy); on the other hand, the university law (which can internationalize our higher education).
It is true that it is not easy to compare periods or make counterfactual speculations. Despite the differences in context, it is clear that there are continuities between the three periods of socialist management. In my opinion, it makes no sense to confront them. Furthermore, the experiences of these three stages of government may be compelling enough to reduce the possibility of right-wing governments limiting freedoms and restricting rights. That they eliminate memories of Miguel Hernández or Largo Caballero, while they erect monuments to Millán Astray or name streets as Caídos de División Azul.
At this point on the road, with the advantage that perspective and accumulated life give, I believe that the stages of socialist governments in Spain have meant for the country the best injection of progress, well-being, modernity and Europeanism that we would have ever imagined at the end of the seventies. I participated in those changes belonging to the governments of Felipe González. I witnessed the expectation raised by the new airs and Zapatero’s policies. And I witness with citizen pride the current task of President Pedro Sánchez, who is once again deepening Spanish democracy through social democratic policies that are having considerable international repercussions.
The left has to avoid succession problems. And you should always remember these verses by José Angel Valente: “the worst thing is not to see/ that nostalgia is a sign of deceit/… there is no reason/ for having had it”.
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