learning from labour

Government or opposition? This is the question intensifying already deep divisions within Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD). Initially intent on opposition after a terrible General Election performance, the SPD leadership has been negotiating terms for another ‘grand’ coalition (‘GroKo’) with Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats — despite a slump in support for both parties. At the SPD’s recent conference a slim majority (56%) voted in favour of negotiations, but a members’ referendum will have the final say — and today is the cut-off date to join and be eligible to take part. However, as tensions grow, there’s no guarantee that the referendum will dutifully rubber stamp another grand coalition. Anti-GroKo activists are ramping up their efforts to save the SPD from another coalition and what they fear will be their party’s terminal decline. And they are looking to Labour, their social-democratic ‘sister party’ as the blueprint for their campaign.

On the face of it, a membership referendum is a transparent, democratic mechanism. But at the same time it allows party leaders to reach over the heads of local branch activists and appeal directly to a large yet often passive, dispersed membership. Of the SPD’s 443,000 members, only about ten per cent are actively involved in their party. It is likely, then, that majority of inactive members are influenced by reported opinion, rather than through direct engagement and debate. Browse popular news websites and you’ll find SPD politicians expressing dismay at NoGroKo campaigners’ ‘disrespect’ for the conference decision, and offering various ‘no alternative’ arguments justifying the volte-face on GroKo (‘taking responsibility’; ‘nobody wants new elections’).

Concerns about entryism are reminiscent of Labour’s leadership election. The SPD is shedding voters but rapidly gaining members, as people keen to have their say in the referendum have rushed to join before today. Just as senior Labour politicians warned that the far left would join to vote for Corbyn and seize control of the party, senior Social Democrats have warned that SPD-hating entryists — including the far-right AfD — could infiltrate the SPD to sabotage not only the coalition vote but the party itself. NoGroKo campaigners claim this is unjustified, arguing that new members want to save the party, not destroy it. (The latest polls, which put the SPD on a miserable 18%, suggest that the malaise goes a lot deeper than entryism).

the aim is to learn — very fast — ways of mobilising new and, in particular, young members

There is also a generational divide. With an average age of over sixty, the SPD isn’t exactly a youthful party, and demographics could still determine the outcome of the referendum, as older members generally favour the coalition. What’s more, there is a noticeably patronising tone towards younger GroKo opponents: based on portrayals of Kevin Kühnert, head of the SPD’s youth section (often referred to as ‘der Lehrling’ — the apprentice), both by the media and senior (properly ‘grown-up’) SPD politicians, you’d probably guess Kühnert was an overly-idealistic teenager, rather than a 28-year-old man with a solid track record of roles within the SPD.     

Since the conference vote, NoGroKo campaigners have been holding discussions and workshops with Momentum. The aim is to learn — very fast —  ways of mobilising new and, in particular, young members; not just to block the coalition but also to breathe new life into the party. To give people something to vote for. But what is it they want to learn?

Clearly, Labour’s increase in votes at the last General Election clearly set it apart from the SPD. But that’s not all. Unlike the SPD, which struggled to present a convincing policy agenda in an election dominated by the immigration issue, Labour succeeded in shifting the focus of the debate away from one dominant theme (Brexit, of course). The party was able to campaign on major domestic issues such as the NHS, housing and education.


At the same time, Labour’s strategy was about getting out and talking to people — especially young people*. On doorsteps, on streets, and in local public spaces. (Take a look at #LabourDoorstep, for example.)

The strategy involves much more than showing up with leaflets two weeks before an election, rarely, if ever, to be seen again. Instead, it’s driven by permanent grassroots campaigning, also when no election is imminent. This approach extends beyond a narrow, parliament-orientated understanding of party politics and creates the impetus for all kinds of engaging activities, both online (social media and apps — My Nearest Marginal, for example) and offline (door-to-door canvassing, socials and policy meetings). All taking place at grassroots level, and bypassing rigid party structures.

Labour doesn’t have all the political answers, of course. And Momentum is certainly no stranger to controversy. But they have shown that support for social democracy can be grown and mobilised on the ground, where the consequences of politics are lived out every day. And demonstrated the appeal of politics as a participatory process of listening, engaging and doing, rather than a top-down exercise predicated on talking at people. This is why SPD opponents of this unpopular coalition are working to convince their party — and especially the leadership — to learn from Labour. And to take a closer look at where politics is happening.        


*While doubt has been cast on the ‘youthquake’ phenomenon, there is no doubt that Labour was the most popular party among all age groups under 45 years.

image credit: Copley/Nathan @ pixabay


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