Lorena Serantes is a political scientist from Spain, whose blog covers a range of interviews with people engaged in politics in the UK. She has interviewed Mike Swadling of this parish, and candidates for political parties across the spectrum of UK politics. We spoke with Lorena about what’s driven this project, what she’s discovered and her views on politics in the UK and Spain.
Lorena thanks for your time.
Can you firstly introduce yourself to our readers and ask what made you undertake interviewing pollical candidates from across the UK?
I am a young political scientist who was born in the wrong place. I grew up with the wish of becoming a lawyer or a judge, but two years before starting my degree studies I decided Law was not for me. My second option was to study something that had to do with politics because I got involved in a local electoral campaign. A political party reached out to me in order to ask me if I would like to be part of the candidacy list locally and I agreed. I was 18 years old and was learning about the Spanish political system and how parties worked, so it was exciting for me to take part in that campaign as my ideological background was beginning to “flourish”. That party has changed a lot, I think even more than myself, but I have to admit if they were to call me now I wouldn’t say yes. During my university years we had many subjects where they made us read American and British politics’ related papers, I knew more about the USA, however, reading about the UK became far more interesting as the years passed. When I had to write my final dissertation it was clear to me that I needed to analyse something that had to do with the UK and the party system. Parties and political theory are my favourite areas of study within the main Political Science discipline. Therefore, I analysed the UKIP’s political discourse and the theoretical debates around considering it a far right party or not, using the software MAXQDA, which I had never used before.
The idea of interviewing UK politicians didn’t come from my own will at first, it was an idea my Master’s final project tutor came up with when I was finishing the writing part. He told me: “Why don’t you try to talk with an MP from the SNP?” (I was analysing Scottish nationalism after Brexit) and my answer was: “I’m gonna try”. I had low expectations because here in Spain politicians don’t respond emails, and I thought it would be the same for UK MPs. It turned out I sent like six emails in one week and I received five responses. It was exciting because I spoke with Alyn Smith, the MP for Stirling, and then with a few more MPs from the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP and Sinn Féin. I received many replies from MPs who were very busy and politely told me they couldn’t participate but the experience was fantastic. You don’t get that from Spanish politicians, I know it first hand. After that, British politics has been my main interest and I try to follow everything that happens there: I followed the Tiverton & Honiton and Wakefield by-elections, partygate and beergate, the factionalism within the Conservatives and Labour, etc. I have my opinions, my views like everyone else but when it comes to analysing the political events that happen in your country I keep those thoughts away. I have interviewed communist candidates and very right-wing politicians, conservatives, liberals, socialists, nationalists… I like to get myself into those ideals and think like a conservative or a socialist, or whatever, depending on the people I’m talking with, because something that I always keep in mind is respect. I’m not a Brexiteer but if I’m interviewing someone who is and whose main campaign is to break all ties with the EU, then I respect that and ask him as if I were a Brexit supporter. That’s the job of political scientists. I’m not a journalist so I’m not trying to get people angry. If I could help with a campaign I would do it regardless of the party.
I keep on dreaming about moving to the UK at some point, because that’s what I want to do in the future if I can afford it, but I was brought up in a working class family and I’m disabled, so we struggle to get by. I think better times will come. I hope your country is waiting for me because I’ll go there as soon as I can. While I’m still here I’ll be supporting Wales, Scotland and England in the World Cup 😉
What’s been the hardest part of interviewing candidates and what’s surprised you about the process?
There are candidates who like to speak about their campaigns and what they want to do, those are the local champions who get into politics with excitement and you can tell that by simply looking at them while they’re telling you this or that, and then you find people who don’t have a political program, they are just there to repeat what the leader of their party says. I already know what Starmer is saying, I don’t need a local candidate reading me the UK-wide Labour Party manifesto. This is just an example, you find that in Labour, the Conservatives, the Greens… Those interviews are boring and it’s hard to listen to the whole “song” again and again, but candidates who have a vision of their own and talk about local issues or policies they would support in their area, those are the ones I enjoy listening to. If I don’t know a place they’re talking about I search it, that way I end up learning more about the geography of the UK. I know where most of the counties are situated, but I’m a mess with cities’ locations.
What interviews have you enjoyed the most and what interview stands out the most?
I enjoyed them all, don’t think I can choose because they’re all special, I guess my favourite interviews are the ones with candidates that got elected. I know this will sound ridiculous but when the results were being declared and names of people I had talked to were coming out as “ELECTED” I felt a bit proud, like I had been part of the campaign. I celebrated some of the results and congratulated many of the candidates. Local politics in Spain is something very boring, you don’t even know who’s running in your municipality and the campaigns are horrible. The candidates almost always call the national party leaders to visit their area, but nothing else happens. I have lost all interest in Spanish politics, but the UK is a bit different, at least it still has some emotion and the feeling I got during the interviews was that local communities are really important for the British people. I loved the campaign and I’m sure I would have done many more interviews if I had been there.
What party’s or parts of UK politics have you found most interesting or surprising?
The Conservatives are an interesting party, they have liberal-conservatives, social-conservatives, nationalists, remainers, brexiteers… It’s a party that knows how to deliver good messages, and I think it has great politicians who are a bit overshadowed by Boris Johnson and his doings. I like Theresa May, Tobias Ellwood, Sir Ken Clarke was also a good one, and from the young ones I would say Kemi Badenoch is also really good. Dominic Raab is my favourite Conservative politician, and I know by saying this I put myself at risk of being laughed at. His discourse is not always the best but he speaks clearly and his calm voice gives me a sense of seriousness that I can’t find in other ministers like Gove or Rees-Mogg. The local Conservative candidates tried to go absolutely local in this campaign, and it was a very good move as partygate and the pre-rebellion situation in the party weren’t helping. They knew it was going to be a hard night for them in many places, but Labour’s strategy to “send a message to Boris” didn’t work quite well. Labour was an interesting party before Starmer, and no one within the party can stand him: some say he’s too stiff, some want the party to move to the left (as it should be)… They are in a complicated moment, because they know the Tories are doing very bad but instead of people shifting from blue to red, it’s Conservative voters who are not showing up to vote. Wakefield has shown us that Labour is winning thanks to abstention, is that enough to secure a government in the next general election? That’s the question.
I also loved how the LibDems and the Greens grew in Scotland, which is a different scenario because of the Yes-No dynamic within parties. I remember one candidate I talked to who was running for a pro-independence party while saying further steps into devolution would suit Scotland better than independence. The Scottish Greens are becoming the alternative to the SNP and step by step they will need to clarify whether they want to stay in a comfortable position going hand in hand with the nationalists or begin to draw their own path. I like their local candidates, they’re close to the people and green policies are going to be the future. I don’t like the social liberal current the Greens have in England and Wales, we’ll see how they handle it.
I was surprised to see true socialist candidates within Labour, I think it is no longer the party of the working class and that puts these people between a rock and a hard place, you know, they have to ask voters to elect a Labour councillor and at the same time they need to promise things that go against their leadership’s desires. I met a few Corbynite candidates and others who were more centrist but didn’t like Starmer. His weakness is his own party, he doesn’t have the support of many local branches across Britain. The Conservatives are more intelligent and successful at hiding their internal disagreements.
How do UK and Spanish politics compare, what are the big differences you see?
Everything is different. You have the FPTP system (the STV in Scotland), we have the D’Hondt system. You have single candidates for a ward, we have lists. You can run as an independent, we can’t. Parties in Spain, be it from the right or the left, are still contaminated by some elements from Franco’s dictatorship doctrines. He created this concept of National-Catholicism which was a mixture between ultranationalism and Christian fundamentalism, and you can see that within the main parties. To give you an example, when a regionalist or minor party wants to pass a bill to condemn Francoism and recognise its victims’ right to truth and justice, the two major parties vote against it. During 2014-2016 Spain went through a fragmentation of the political spectrum, which isn’t likely to happen in the UK. Right-wing and left-wing parties were founded, as alternatives to the two-party system. It turns out, Podemos and VOX are the same. VOX is openly Francoist, Podemos is no longer a “revolutionary” party, but a platform for new social democratic elites to jump on board. The debates have lost its sense after the Catalan nationalist parties have shut up to let the Spanish government carry on as if nothing had happened. No one is talking about Catalonia anymore. What I like about British politics is that parties are not cults where you have to agree with the leadership, or you get expelled. That happens here. The first time I watched a parliamentary session it was very weird to look at Conservative MPs yelling at other Conservative MPs. It surprised me to see members of the cabinet apologising for doing something wrong. Even if it’s just a way to pretend they care, I’ve never seen that happening here. The thing that annoys me the most about Spanish politics is the fact you must belong to a political party to stand for election, even in your municipality! Independent politicians don’t have a say.
Spain is a centralised country. The system of Autonomies is a mess, it was done to prevent the Basques and Catalans from seeking independence and to create that image of a united Spain, which doesn’t exist. Galician people have to comply with the wishes of second-homes’ owners from Madrid, an elite that comes here to spend holidays and that still think they can do whatever they want. It happens in Wales and Cornwall, so that’s a thing we share. England has their own national team. Wales has another one and so on. Spain silences every part of the country that doesn’t want centralisation. If you ask for a little bit of autonomy, you’re a radical far left terrorist. Conservative MPs would be called that in Spain by some parties, others would call them fascists. I often say devolution works better despite having less powers transferred that those of the Autonomies in Spain: you are happy being British and even Scottish and Welsh nationalists don’t want to leave the Union because of identitarianism, but because of a different conception of democracy; we are not patriotic because being so means complying with a Post-Francoist idea of Spain that only benefits the same families. Spain lives in the past, and I’m not talking about conservatism. Politics in the UK also has many issues that constantly change from time to time. Brexit wasn’t even a word in the 1990s, Scottish nationalism is quite young, things change. The reason I’m tired of Spanish politics is because there’s no debate anymore. Some years ago there was a parliamentary discussion about how an MP had called another one a “terrorist”, the level has come to those types of debates. The left-wing in Spain is useless, in fact my theory is that it doesn’t exist a single left-wing party. There are really good individuals within the main parties, like Margallo (PP) or Pérez Tapias (PSOE) but they stay in the background. There are a few parties that deserve international attention: like Canarian Coalition, the CUP or the coalition between the PP and the Navarrese People’s Union, which is called Navarra Suma.
You don’t have those in the UK. As for types of parties we’ve never seen here, I would say something like the English Democrats, the Scottish Greens or the exctinct Independent Labour Party. Those are “national phenomenons”.
Do you have any predictions for the next few years in UK politics?
Well, I’m not an expert but I think really interesting events are coming: a general election in which many MPs will lose their seats, a Scottish independence referendum in 2023 (at least that’s Sturgeon’s plan), and the fights within the main parties. Johnson is completely lost, he should resign if he wants his party not to suffer a “bloodiness” of Tory seats. This is not an opinion, it’s a fact. Starmer will face many problems due to what I said before, locally he doesn’t have a strong support. He’s the worst Labour politician I’ve seen. We’ll see what happens.
What’s next for your interviews and blog?
I’ll probably wait until the general election to publish more interviews. My intention is to do the same I did during the local election campaign. I’ll try to get as many as I can. Labour will be able to gain many seats they lost in 2019, so I’m going to try to concentrate my interviews in the two major parties. I would like to be a moderator in an online hustings, that way I could compare all the perspectives. That would be nice, but if it can’t be done, I’ll keep on publishing interviews the same way.
Thanks for your interest!