Book review: How a strong Communist party led to less social protection in Portugal, and its absence to more protection in Spain

9780190245474The Left Divided: The Development and Transformation of Advanced Welfare States By Sara E. Watson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN: 9780190245474, 376 p (review to appear in Political Studies Review, autumn 2017).

One of the most widespread assumptions in welfare state and comparative political economy research is that the strength of the left is the major driver of redistributive policies in advanced industrialized countries. However, most of the classic works in the field have assumed that the left constitutes an homogeneous bloc. Scandinavian countries, where social-democratic parties have been closely connected to powerful trade unions, have constituted the main empirical basis of important works advocating this position, such as those of Esping-Andersen (1992) or Korpi (1983).

In her impressive comparative analysis of Spain and Portugal, Sara Watson shows that this assumption of homogeneity within the left is more the exception than the norm. In many countries, the left is divided across the party and industrial relations system between a moderate and a radical left, and these divisions and competition patterns among left-wing parties can yield counterintuitive effects on inequality and redistribution. Hence, she shows how Portugal, where a powerful Communist party was able to control the trade union movement during the transition to democracy, developed a more unequal and liberal welfare model in the 1970s and 1980s. Spain, meanwhile, where the transition was controlled by the right, established a system with a higher level of social protection for workers in the aftermath of transition. This unexpected outcome, Watson argues, was the result of partisan strategies. Faced with a strong far-left competitor, the Portuguese moderate Socialist Party adopted a deliberate strategy to weaken the Communists and their trade union allies organizationally, resulting in a higher level of exposure of Portuguese workers to market forces. In the absence of comparable patterns of intra-left competition, no such incentives for liberalization existed in Spain. Accordingly, this political process shaped labour market outcomes in both countries up to now, with higher social protection but higher unemployment in Spain, and low unemployment but more poverty and inequality in Portugal.

To support this clever theoretical argument, Watson draws on an impressive comparative historical analysis connecting the intricacies of intra-left competition with changes in industrial relations, employment protection and income compensation. Combining theoretical innovation with an impressive comparative-historical analysis, this is by far the best account of the development of welfare capitalism in Spain and Portugal after democratisation, and its insights will be relevant for scholars working on a much broader range of countries.


Esping-andersen, G. 1992. Politics Against Markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Korpi, W. 1983. The Democratic Class Struggle. London: Routledge.


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