research update #1: election strategy and returning to the (grass)roots

This is a ‘state of play’ blog focusing on my research.

For part-time or independent researchers, getting into the right mindset and into the routine of writing can be tough. With so many competing demands on your time it’s sometimes hard to feel you’re part of the research community, or to even think about writing after a day’s work. It’s something I’m all too familiar with. But, trite as it sounds, I honestly feel enlivened by this current research. It’s a different take on my subject and set in an uncertain and therefore intriguing political context. And because I enjoy thinking about the research, it’s is always there in my head; not always front of mind, of course, as I need to be fully present in my day job. But there’s no more scrabbling around in some cobwebbed corner of my mind to dust off whatever I was working on last time; the ideas and questions are ready to be unpacked once it’s finally time to open the laptop or pick up a pen. So what’s it all about? 

the topic

What I’m exploring is Germany’s Left Party and its strategy to become more ‘anchored’ in local politics and grow sustainable electoral support. The strategy returns the party to its roots, in two ways. First, echoing the historical role of its predecessor in Germany’s eastern states, the party is recast as a Kümmererpartei (‘caring party’) concerned with the everyday difficulties people face. In the past, these were the challenges of life in the post-unification east; today, they are widespread problems such as precarious employment, lack of affordable housing and crumbling public services. The strategy’s second focus on ‘rootedness’ lies in its clear targeting of localised campaigning and grassroots activities with the goal of (re)gaining voters particularly affected by these problems.

The strategy returns the party to its roots

But why the Left Party? Well, love it or loathe it, the party has seats in the national parliament (Bundestag) and in a number of regional legislatures. In a proportional system, the party’s relative strength or weakness impacts which coalitions might be arithmetically and politically viable and, importantly, the nature and scope of political debate. Second, the current populism debate has the Left Party in its sights. Although I find the the distinction between ‘responsible’ parties of the centre and the ‘disruptive’ parties on the left and right to be a little simplistic, not to mention politically convenient, this debate is nevertheless a lively one both in the media and in current academic research. Third, and the angle I’m most interested in here, is democratic representation and participation. Low voter turnout isn’t anything particularly new, but it is increasingly characterised by socio-economic disparity: the poorer the district, the lower the turnout, which raises questions about the social representativeness of elections in Germany. A significant part of the Left Party’s core vote is based in areas experiencing declining turnout (and vulnerable to the right-wing AfD); so I want to find out how the party is addressing this worrying trend. 


That’s the topic in a nutshell — what about the theoretical aspect of the research? I’m applying a framework derived from cartel theory and developed from my PhD research to analyse the Left Party’s strategy and its practical implementation from the perspectives of policy supply and party organisation. I’m not setting out to prove or disprove the theory itself — rather, I’m using the theory as a lens through which to examine these two angles of the party’s strategy.

state of play

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been concentrating on the details of the strategy — aims, timelines, documentation and feedback. The strategy has centred on two major campaigns; the first¹ was designed to mobilise locally on specific issues related to precariousness, shape policy demands and strengthen identification with the Left Party ‘brand’ in this context. The second campaign² has concentrated on outreach, especially in areas which are or were Left Party strongholds, by inviting members of the public to share concerns, experiences and needs (online or face to face, for example through door-to-door canvassing³). As well as informing policy, the campaign has set out to establish and sustain relationships with local individuals and organisations. So we can see that with their emphasis on drawing attention to and articulating real-life problems, and engaging with people at a local level, both strategy campaigns align closely with the ‘return to the roots’ approach.

Does the emphasis on everyday, practical problems shift attention away from the bigger, ideological debate concerning society and capitalism?

The deeper you delve into a topic, the more questions you unearth, of course, and this is certainly true of the strategy documents. For example, I’m keen to find out whether the strategy has extended or limited the scope of local campaigning: have other, longer-term grassroots activities and alliances been ‘squeezed out’ by the precariousness focus? How does the flow of communication and ideas work in practice? Does the emphasis on everyday, practical problems shift attention away from the bigger, ideological debate concerning society and capitalism (a debate that frequently plagued the party’s eastern predecessor)? And how do activists feel about the campaign? These are the questions I’ll be exploring from the organisational and policy perspectives of the theory framework — also in a local context, in keeping with the strategy itself.   

what’s next?

This weekend is about drafting the section on the key strategy documents and making sure I really bring out that connection to the party’s historical background and experience. There’s still lots to find out and do, but getting ideas onto paper as you go along (rather than ‘writing up’ at the end) is an indispensable part of doing research. Writing makes things fall into place, highlights problems and questions that hadn’t occurred to you before and means you have a tangible ‘output’ — something encouraging, even if it’s just a paragraph written after a long working day. So as the weekend approaches I’m looking forward to some focused writing (with considerably more than a paragraph to show for it) and tackling some of those questions. 


¹ Das muss drin sein‘ loosely translates as ‘that’s essential’, and refers to basic, indispensible social and workplace guarantees needed to overcome precariousness. (Campaign ran 2015-17; link to archived page here, in German)

² ‘Was muss drin sein?‘ asks ‘what’s essential?’ —  in other words, what people need in the policy manifesto. (Link to German page here)

³ Door-to-door canvassing isn’t as common in Germany as it is in the UK. Incidentally, the party looked on with considerable interest at the General Election campaign run by the Momentum movement supporting Jeremy Corbyn, particularly its grassroots focus and ability to mobilise young people.

image credit: TeroVesalainen @ 


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