What happened with #NoGroko?
#NoGroko, the campaign against the grand coalition between the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and the SPD (Social Democratic Party), captured the political imagination of the British left, though mostly as another lens through which to view domestic political debates. However, attempts to paint the campaign as ‘imported Corbynism’ fall wide of the mark.
The closest British parallel may actually be to the Liberal Democrats, who voted to endorse the Coalition at a special conference in 2010, with fewer than 1% of delegates opposing the deal - and we all know how well that turned out. But the SPD are not a party triumphantly returning from the wilderness - they are party desperately trying to regain their relevance. Recent opinion polling has put them neck-and-neck, and in some cases even behind, the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany). The decision by members on Sunday to back the coalition by 66% on a 75% turnout has turned the AfD into the official opposition. Proponents of the coalition deal believed a far worse fate awaited the SPD if they rejected the agreement outright - a return to the polls and an electoral massacre. This fear, along with the lack of alternatives, was the key factor in handing victory to the party leadership. Angela Merkel and the CDU were similarly apprehensive about new elections. The coalition deal was therefore more generous to the SDP - including the coveted post of Finance Minister. But it also included sops to AfD voters via the CDU’s more right wing Bavarian Sister Party the CSU (Christian Social Union), including a new ‘Homeland Ministry’ headed up by their leader Horst Seehofer.
For SDP members living in Britain like Sabrina Huck, the case against was twofold: “The SPD needs intellectual renewal and I do not believe that it is achievable in a grand coalition. It was possible to do some good stuff in government, but I don't believe in the long term that we can just try to apply bandages to a broken system, there is a need for more radical solutions and systematic change.” It was not just party renewal which motivated opposition, however. “I feel that with the refugee crisis and the rise of the AfD, we are at a crossroad in terms of what kind of country and society we will be. And I feel the SPD needs to provide a strong opposition to rising fascism and needs to develop policies that both deal with tensions directly resulting from the refugee crisis, as well as challenge racism and Islamophobia.”
British political commentators and activists rarely have an intimate knowledge about the politics of even our close neighbours, and that lack of knowledge is on full display when discussing the coalition debate. As far as Huck is concerned “people [haven’t] grasped in the UK what a fundamental difference the refugee crisis has made in German politics. In the UK, we barely talk about it, the UK didn't take a lot of refugees in the first place, and a lot of the political debate focuses on whether or not we will have to move the border from Calais to the UK after Brexit and if we think that it means more refugees will come here. But in Germany it has become a dominant discussion, you cannot escape it and it has really fuelled the far right. And as long as nobody in the main parties can provide a satisfactory answer to the problem, it will probably not get much better.”
#NoGroko didn’t win, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from it. In the Labour Party, even supposedly grassroots campaigns are dominated by senior figures of one faction or another, and are mostly concerned, understandably, with electing their people into positions of power. The #NoGroko campaign was quite different - led from the bottom by a tenacious and committed youth wing (Jusos or SPD Youth), rather than by parliamentarians. Youth leaders travelled all over the country holding 24 meetings over 19 days in order to make their case. The marked independence of Jusos might seem strange to British onlookers - the main parties in Britain rarely give their youth wings that level of power, or influence. That independence, and the bottom-up nature of the campaign, is something worth emulating.
Marcus Schafar, vice-chair of Jusos in the German region ofPalatinate characterised the campaign as a youth insurgency: “90% of the campaign were organised by the Jusos, and [our] chairman Kevin Kühnert. Besides us, there were also about 5 MP’s campaigning against the Groko, but the big majority of SPD MPs and the whole party executive committee was in favour of it.” Similarly to Huck, he believes the future of the SPD lies in regaining their radicalism, and renewing party democracy - “The decision-making must shift from the executive committee to the members [which could allow] the SPD to start to rethink their strategy in addressing the future. The gap between the poor and the rich is diverging more from year to year. We need to address this topic and to discuss the role of social democracy in a society where a lot of jobs can be done by computers in the near future, what does this mean for the party of labourers?” That’s the question the SDP will have to answer, in or out of government.