"We have to democratise the party"

Anti-Coalition Campaigning in the SPD

As talks between the CDU/CSU and the SPD to form another coalition government concluded, New Socialist talked to Labour and SPD member Steve Hudson, chair of the NoGroKo anti-coalition campaign group.

You’ve been working recently to put together the NoGroKo campaign. It seems to have garnered a substantial amount of support. Who within the SPD has pushed back?

The pushback is almost entirely from above. The party leadership have been doing these extraordinary pirouettes. The [official party communication] is a non-stop paean to the GroKo and how wonderful it would be, which is just… you know, you can just take earlier quotes from the exact same people and use them as counter-arguments.

I was at there at the Parteirat1 in Cologne recently, and I’d say ninety percent of the members in attendance were against a new coalition, and the few who were in favour were almost all from the party establishment. The split that goes through the party is not so much left and right, it’s above and below.

When joining the Labour Party, you have to work out the structure of the party, the branches, the delegate system, and so on. If you’ve never experienced it before, it can take a while to get settled. You joined the SPD relatively recently; how did it compare?

Well, luckily there are lots of people who are very active in the SPD, who are on the left wing of the party and who understand the party structure, and that helped. If you only know the SPD from the news you’d likely despair at the state of it, but these people do have a vision of how to improve the party.

There’s this sort of cascade of delegates in the SPD. As an ordinary member, you elect your local delegates, and those delegates in turn elect the next level of delegates, and so on. Unlike for example the Labour Party conference delegates, which are exclusively ordinary members from the party base, the national delegates in the SPD are overwhelmingly members of the local and national parliaments, and other party functionaries, who earn their living either from or via their party positions and are therefore under immense pressure from above to keep in line.

At the recent party conference it was decided that the party would enter into coalition negotiations, but the actual outcome of that vote was surprising. The Parteivorstand2 is quite bloated and has 45 members who all got to vote too; they of course voted with the party line. If you subtract their votes from the result, you get only 52% in favour of a new coalition, and that’s despite all of the pressure and the bullying that goes on before these votes.

SPD party conferences are usually quite blatantly stage-managed; a vote against the leadership like that usually just doesn’t happen. Quite a lot of the national delegates see any new coalition as potentially the death of the SPD.

German political commentators often discuss the formation of a coalition government in terms of public duty. I think to readers in the UK this might be reminiscent of the kind of bluster that was used to justify the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Do SPD members ever talk about a potential coalition in the same terms?

No, my experience of that is that none of the members talk in those terms. On the one hand of course, we all want a stable government in the long term, but the question really is: what is our responsibility to society in general? It seems to me that the SPD has a responsibility to provide an alternative to a conservative government.

The richest 45 Germans are now as wealthy as the bottom 50% of households in the country.3 It’s this kind of obscene inequality that is driving huge support to the AfD who are adding new members every day, and which allows the AfD to point to other parties and say, “look, they’re all the same; we are the only party who wants to change anything”.

If we go into coalition with the CDU/CSU, the AfD will be the strongest opposition party by the next election. Indeed they already are in some states. So is there some kind of responsibility to form a government which will do nothing to address the country’s fundamental problems? I don’t think so at all.

The #NoGroKo movement has been frequently compared to Momentum. One big difference, though, is that it’s based around a political strategy rather than a leadership election. At some point the coalition question will be answered. Is there a danger that the movement will dissipate afterwards?

Yes, of course, and we have to work against that. It’s true that there’s no personality to base #NoGroKo around, but then again the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaigns were never really about one person. Despite what many critics have said about Momentum, the whole point has been to put the members in charge, and Jeremy was just the person we knew we could rely on to not keel over under the pressure.

We do have an all-member vote on the coalition coming up, which is very rare for the SPD. Hopefully this will drive some of that feeling of empowerment that we felt in the last few years in Labour. But this is all just a first step. The next step has to be a new programme for the SPD.

Some of the elements of that programme are, at least to me, very obvious. We have to fall to our knees and beg for forgiveness for Agenda 20104, to clearly say to people “that was wrong”. We need to be better on protecting the environment. We need to stop manufacturing and exporting weapons. We have to address the growing social inequality with a proper wealth tax. Just having the guts to actually fulfil what are notionally the party’s ethical ambitions.

We also have to democratise the party. I’d be very in favour of a direct vote for both the party leader and the Parteivorstand. None of this sounds like rocket science when you say it out loud, but we don’t have it yet. At the same time, we need credibility. People need to believe that we’re actually going to do what we say.

Right. That leads me nicely onto this issue of trust. The SPD are seen as untrustworthy; they’re a left party that talks about making progressive change but always caves in to the demands of capital. Schulz has even acknowledged that Agenda 2010 is still a big problem for the party. Why has there been no action on this?

It’s funny, Schulz is for me Ed Miliband all over again. The cardinal sin of the SPD is Agenda 2010. Schulz just happened to be in Brussels at the time and wasn’t involved in its implementation. Then he came in as leader and criticised it, and immediately shot up to 32% in the polls.5

But like Miliband was surrounded by people whose careers were bound to the war in Iraq, so was Schulz surrounded by people who were bound up with the Agenda. I joined the SPD at that moment, thinking that finally someone had said the unsayable. I went to the party conference that summer in Dortmund and Gerhard Schröder, the architect of Agenda 2010, was invited as guest speaker. You could just see that the party had already got their hooks into Schulz and convinced him to roll back. There’s this culture of never, ever disagreeing publicly with the party line in the SPD which is utterly depressing.

You think the same thing happened with Schulz’s change of opinion on the coalition? How else could we understand it?

Yeah I do, and by now it’s hard to know if Schulz has a single bone in his body, or if he himself believes in anything. There was this one speech where he said “I’m not aiming for anything”6, and it really felt you could see into this incredible vacuum in his soul, a man who’s really just looking for a career and will say whatever is necessary for that. The party is making plans to replace him, I’m sure, and they’d be right to.

But in a way, I don’t think we need to be demanding that he step down, because before that we have to answer some much more fundamental questions about the direction of the party. First of all the base of the party has to have a much, much stronger voice and that needs to be cemented in a democratic structure. Like I say, direct elections to the party executive would certainly focus people’s minds [laughs].

But secondly, we [in the NoGroKo movement] also need to offer an alternative party leadership team. We don’t have that in the SPD at all compared to the Corbyn campaigns, where even though it sometimes looked like just Jeremy, there was a always a core group of supportive MPs that could have made up a shadow cabinet.

At the moment we have Hilde Mattheis, who is relatively outspoken and critical, and is the head of DL217. We have Marco Bülow, who is a scathing critic of lobbyism. But otherwise, despite this rebellion in the party base, we don’t have people out there who are willing to put their heads above the parapet because of the consequences of going against the leadership.

So we need to be strategic about how we can exert pressure from below without leaving individuals exposed to reaction from the Parteivorstand. At the same time we’ve got the Seeheimer Kreis and Netzwerk8, who are very well organised and, well, they are vengeful. So it’s easy to criticise [the left of the party] but we need to organise better, to give them the means to come out of cover.

The national chair of the Jusos (SPD Young Socialists), Kevin Kühnert, says “we want to attract new members, who will join the SPD out of conviction because they share our core values.” The SPD already has more than 440,000 members. Can a party that large be changed by adding some new anti-coalition members?

It’s a big question. 85% of SPD members are not active in any way at all.9 A huge number are over 70 years old and joined in the Willy Brandt era, which is now looked upon as the halcyon days of the party, but back then the idea of opening up a dialogue with the communist East was bitterly opposed inside the party. That fear of criticism from conservatives – Rote Socken, etc. – is still very much what drives the right wing of the SPD today.

So nobody really knows how the older members are going to vote on forming a coalition. We do have the membership vote on the Grand Coalition of 2013 to go on, in which there was a huge propaganda campaign from the leadership and the outcome was 76% in favour. It’s entirely possible that the leadership wins that way this time, with a mass of votes from people who’ve never really been exposed to the counter-argument.

We do have some factors on our side this time though. The debate is wide-reaching. It’s in the news all the time, even outside of Germany. What the Jusos have done is used their own structure – they have their own finances and their own staff – to get the issue on the front pages. The close delegate vote being controversial has made people within the party take notice, and this being the third time that members have been asked to tolerate a coalition means people are really fed up of it and it’s motivating people.

Young people who’ve never seen the SPD as anything but a tool to prop up conservative governments are joining out of frustration, and what we do know is that those people are going to vote. Nobody would join the party now, under these circumstances, only to not use their vote.

The Jusos remind me a little of the career-driven element of Young Labour. I don’t remember them, for example, having many radical suggestions before the anti-coalition movement came about. The people with the loudest voices seem quite cautious. Is that a fair assessment?

I think there’s an attitude generally within the party to dismiss them as “just” the Jusos, the young people. They at least call themselves socialists, which is not generally a word that get used in the SPD at all!

I think there is a careerist element; one of the better lines Kühnert landed in a recent speech was, “As a representative of the generation who can, should and will take over the party in the future, we’ll be pleased if you leave anything of this party behind for us!”10 Having a career is possibly one way to read that.

One thing that’s important though is that #NoGroKo is not the Jusos, which is how it’s often reported. We’ve been able to take advantage of their structure, their organisational skills and their reach and that’s been great, but the campaign is from the general membership. It’s been very lazily reported as a Jusos campaign and that’s just not true. We have older members fighting for this too.

So, back to the party’s core values: I read the 2017 party manifestos keen to make comparisons with post-2015 Labour. Sadly the SPD manifesto reminded me in some ways, as you’ve mentioned, of Ed Miliband-era Labour; it tried to dress up tough guy reactionary policies in the language of a social justice platform and fell flat. Is there an internal conversation about what the core values of the SPD actually are?

There has been a lot of internal criticism. It’s not enough for us to just say “social justice” and not be clear about what that means.

Time for More Justice was the name of the manifesto…

Right! I mean I walk my dog in the morning, and there are dozens of people sleeping on the streets in a prosperous city, in an incredibly prosperous country. Germany has never been wealthier; if we can’t deal with homelessness now, that is just giving up.

The SPD has been in power for sixteen of the last twenty years, and income inequality in Germany is at the same level as it was in 1913.11 It’s gobsmacking. It’s not enough to say you stand for social justice if it’s just a shorthand for “I’m nice”. A genuine, convincing approach to crucial problems like that would be to say “this stops now”, but that ambition has been massively lacking in the SPD. There’s been a lot of shoulder shrugging.

In Labour that ambition is there, which is great, but the next step is doing the difficult intellectual work of articulating how we’re going to achieve our goals.

We shouldn’t assume too much.

Right. I think that up to this point, a lot of people who are the most active in the SPD have been naturally, for want of a better term, policy wonks.

This is still the case in some parts of Labour. The National Policy Forum, for example.

Yes and at the moment what the SPD needs is broad ambitions; a vision. Simple steps.

I’m reminded of the classic Tom Gann tweet, “Everything a liberal says is complicated is simple; everything a liberal says is simple is complicated.”

[Laughs] At the moment, with coalition papers and then the coalition contract being written, the temptation is to come to an issue and just immediately start engaging with it.

If you’re lacking that clear articulation to begin with, you can only ever engage at a fine level, fiddling with percentages.

Most of that fiddling is well-intentioned, but it doesn’t take the big picture into account. It also doesn’t resonate with voters, and at the moment voters are pissed off.

Die Linke doesn’t seem to be able to increase its vote share, despite the SPD being at such a low ebb, and they are aware of it too. Let’s say the #NoGroKo campaign saves the party from obscurity in the short term. Do you see a future in which any SPD party leadership takes the prospect of a red-red-green coalition federal government seriously?

That has to be our explicit aim. We had a left majority for years and the tragedy is we only ever managed to put a Christian Democrat in place as Chancellor the whole time. The red-green coalition [of 1998-2005] was such an utter disappointment, and the Greens seem determined to remove any trace of left politics from their party leadership, that I think we have to be aiming to include Die Linke, it’s essential. There are some things I like about Die Linke and some I don’t, but the SPD have always been the big blocker to a left coalition; the party grandees who completely refuse the idea.

It’s a shame Die Linke can’t seem to increase their vote. I think they’re doing well with young people who are open to doing the Wahl-O-Mat12 and choosing based on the party platforms, but for older working class people there’s still this attitude that you stick with your party as if it were your football team.

Since the SPD is still treated by the media as a Volkspartei, if and when the party changes its tune and addresses the really urgent problems, that can change the national debate in a way Die Linke are not able to. So it just seems that there can be no red-red-green coalition, no left government, unless we try to bring the SPD around.

Photo: SPD Schleswig-Holstein

  1. The Parteirat (Party Council) is one of the upper layers of the SPD delegate structure and has significant decision-making power. As apposed to the annual party conference, the Council holds smaller conferences more frequently. 

  2. The Parteivorstand (Party Executive Board) is the highest level of the party structure, containing the Leader, Deputy Leaders, General Secretary and other functionaries. 

  3. Figures reported by Spiegel Online are from Looking for the Missing Rich: Tracing the Top Tail of the Wealth Distribution, a 2018 research paper from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). 

  4. Agenda 2010 was a programme of severe welfare and employment reforms implemented by the SPD/Green coalition government led by Gerhard Schröder. The reforms caused disillusioned SPD members to form a new party, the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice (WASG)

  5. The interactive graph from Infratest dimap shows the jump in SPD polling from 20% in January to 32% in February 2017. 

  6. Schulz’s speech at the Jusos Federal Congress in November 2017. See “Ich strebe gar nix an…”. 

  7. Forum Demokratische Linke (DL21) is a prominent left wing faction within the SPD. 

  8. The Seeheimer Kreis is an economically liberal faction on the right wing of the SPD. Netzwerk Berlin is another liberal reformist faction whose membership overlaps with the Seeheimer Kreis. Both factions have been outspoken in support of Agenda 2010

  9. An estimation that party members generally accept. Two studies cited by Tim Spier in Not Dead Yet? Explaining Party Member Activity in Germany (p. 3, fig. 1) estimate around three quarters of the SPD membership to be inactive or rarely active. 

  10. Excerpts of Kühnert’s speech are available from Welt. See “Als Vertreter der Generation, die für diese Partei…”. 

  11. Figures comparing the share of income received by the top decile of the population are from the World Inequality Report 2018 from the World Inequality Lab. 

  12. Wahl-O-Mat is a tool from the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (BPB) which asks users questions about their beliefs and tries to match them with the best-fitting party political programme.