Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

The old SPD urgently needs new political energy

The parties of the left in Europe were once vibrant institutions, attracting diverse membership and widely embedded in national life. Today as electoral support declines across the continent, it is also increasingly clear that the energy and élan which marked out party organisation is fast draining away.

In Germany, the SPD has lost almost half of its members since 1990 and the average age of party members is now almost 60. In addition, an extensive survey among local party associations in 2010 revealed that the party has also dramatically lost contact with large sections of society. For example, 66% of local party associations have not carried out any ‘open projects’ such as district conferences or workshops with citizens in the last few years. Furthermore, 50% of local associations only meet once or twice per year.

Upon his election as SPD chairman in November 2009, Sigmar Gabriel recognised the extent of this organisational crisis besetting his party and proposed widespread reform.

This month he has followed this up by releasing ambitious plans for opening up the organisation. Most controversial among them is a proposal to determine candidates for public office through primary elections, in which non-members will be allowed to participate. Gabriel hopes the plans will mean the SPD can cater for more high-profile candidates, while at the same time increasing the appeal of the shrinking and ageing party.

Yet, despite the clear implications of an organisational crisis for the SPD, and although primary elections will be optional for party branches, Gabriel’s proposals met vehement opposition from functionaries who claimed that it did not fit into the political culture of Germany in which choosing candidates was the original purpose of parties. Moreover, letting non-members vote would devalue party membership and leave room for manipulation by opposition forces.

As many political observers have noted, much of this outcry was the natural reaction of party officials who fear losing political influence to outsiders. But that is only part of the explanation. A closer look at the proposal reveals that Gabriel’s plan for more direct democracy is accompanied by a strategy of centralisation: the size of the powerful inner-party bodies ‘Präsidium’ and ‘Parteivorstand’ is to be reduced by half. The ‘Parteirat’ – formally the highest body between party conferences with more than 200 members – is to be replaced by an alternative committee of full-time politicians.

In addition, Gabriel envisages several smaller changes such as a nationwide service centre for members and an ‘innovation fund’ which will allow the party headquarters to support certain sections of the party. Each of these measures would strengthen the party leadership against mid-level members, meaning the people who hang up posters and attend the local party meetings will be simultaneously losing influence at the top and bottom of the SPD. In the worst case scenario, the direct democratic elements will turn out to be nothing but a fig leaf, while more, not less, top-down leadership is introduced.

As the reform proposals are discussed inside the SPD over the coming months, it will be crucial for the party to treat its centralising and its direct democratic, opening elements as analytically separable. The former is an ambivalent matter of efficiency and distribution of resources. The latter could be a big chance for the SPD to engage with groups in society such as women and young professionals who lack either the time or the desire to attend regular party meetings, but who an ageing party such as the SPD sorely needs.

Sceptics such as the chairman of the SPD youth organisation, Sascha Vogt, have argued that instead of trying to create reformed organisational structures, the SPD should focus its attention on developing an attractive programme. Only afterwards, he argued, was a candidate to be found who matches the programme. This kind of thinking is part of the problem, not the solution. Voters do not elect (never mind read) party programmes, however perfect they may be. And candidates who display maximum loyalty to party programmes are likely to lack popularity outside party assembly rooms.

As Obama´s legendary campaign in 2008 demonstrated, winning elections is about popular, authentic candidates, a few important topics with a suitable narrative, and a campaign dynamic which results from intense interaction with the society. In all three aspects, ‘airing out’ the party, as Gabriel put it, may be helpful.

Der Text erschien als monatliche Kolumne „The State of the Left“ ursprünglich bei unserem Kooperationspartner Policy Network und ist hier abrufbar.