Publikation Soziale Bewegungen / Organisierung The challenge of party reform

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Juli 2008

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Theses for the Workshop of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation to be held on 8/9 May 2003:
“The challenge of party reform – experience and problems of left-wing European parties in reshaping their organization, structure and techniques”

Topic:
“The ‘Party Reform’ project in the PDS: Implementation phases, experience and problems”

(1)
“Party reform” may be understood as the more or less planned internal reshaping and modernization of a political party. On the one hand it concerns structures, organizational forms and formal statutes, and on the other the question of practical techniques and use of resources. The necessity for such a reform arises as a result of both external factors and the internal conditions in which the parties in question develop. The former include the immediate need to compete with other parties in the political system, the emergence of new political issues, changes in the sociocultural make-up of society, the growing influence of modern communications media, and the appearance of new actors in the shape of social movements. The challenges arising from within the parties are mainly a result of the fact that many people’s ties to parties in general are growing fewer or “loosening”, so that many parties find themselves with a dwindling and ageing membership.

(2)
The problem of ongoing internal modernization plays an important role for all parties. In the case of left-wing parties, however, there are a number of specific requirements that currently have to be met:
* Most left-wing parties are going through a time of upheaval. In the face of new trends, which may be summed up as the spread of globalized neoliberalism, and which make themselves felt in changed power constellations (also involving military force), they are faced with the task of finding up-to-date strategic positions and effective political courses of action that will enable them to assume or share in government responsibility.
* The state of many left-wing parties basically reflects traditional structures, organizational forms and techniques that have their origins in the 1950s and 1960s and are no longer adequate to the conditions of modern societies. This applies, for example, to the problem of dealing with inner-party “pluralism” (tendencies, platforms etc.), the nature of a membership defined by statute (rights and duties), the function of parties’ grass-roots organizations (positioning, performing tasks, etc.) or the acceptance of new communication facilities and their associated structures (contacts and organizations via the Internet, etc.).
* Left-wing parties must be able to act in a variety of new ways as an active and competent partner in particular constellations. This applies both to the necessary continent-wide co-operation and networking among parties in Europe and the need to work together with new social movements which also operate far beyond national borders, as well as contacts on a local level with professional and industrial associations, citizens’ groups and networks.

(3)
Party reforms are by their nature complicated and contradictory. Parties are “collective actors in the realm of (power) politics” having the character of social organizations in a wide range of societal contexts, while possessing their own specific inner structures. At the same time, however, the parties are also associations of their members, in which participation is voluntary. Remaining in thrall to hoary traditions and various constellations of interests within the party (considerations of political power, personal pursuit of parliamentary positions and resources, etc.) can block or hinder stages of the reform. Given this constellation, a party reform can neither be decreed “from above” nor forced “from below” by staging “revolts”. The best approach would appear to be for leading bodies to enter into a democratic dialogue with the membership and show a willingness to learn and experiment, so that elements of the party reform can be gradually implemented.

(4)
For some time now (since the day of its founding, in fact) the PDS has been marked by numerous unsolved internal problems and “asymmetries”. Of its current total of about 75,000 members only some 5,000 are operating in the west of Germany –where four fifths of the country’s total population live. More than two thirds of PDS members are over retirement age. PDS membership trends can be deduced from the following facts: Every year the party loses 3,000 to 4,000 members. Of the annual intake of new members (approx. 1,500) 800-1,000 leave the party again within the space of 12 months. Thus on balance the internal development is clearly negative. For this reason alone, despite the party’s strong representation in municipal councils and state parliaments (in the Eastern states), and despite its capacity to influence events as a member of ruling coalitions in two Federal states, the problem of its exerting palpable political influence in the present and future has to be viewed as extremely critical. Without an internal “renewal” of the party its structures are likely to erode and its capacity to act undermined. The ability of the PDS to conduct effective election campaigns in future is in question. If no clear breakthrough is achieved, time is clearly working against the party.

(5)
During the critical debates that followed the defeat of the PDS in the last Federal elections demands were voiced for effective steps towards party reform. Although this issue had already played a role in the 1990s, it repeatedly dropped to the bottom of the agenda, so that the overall results remained unsatisfactory. On the basis of a resolution of the party congress held in autumn 2002 a special study group began its work in December of that same year. Following numerous discussions five important positions on party reform were formulated:
a) The aim of the reform was described as the renewal of the PDS as a “modern members’ party”. In contrast to variants of “parliamentary party”, “voters’ party” or “media party”, this formula stresses the special roots of the PDS in society through the work of its members in everyday life.
b) The party reform embodies a peculiar combination of “piecemeal improvement” (in the sense of: “repair”) and “creative renewal”. The aim here is to rationalize party work and make it more effective, while at the same time trying out and introducing new possibilities based on “projects”.
c) The party reform is focused on key areas (see Theses 6 to 9) which do not, however, constitute a clearly defined “master plan”. The intention is for it to evolve gradually as a learning process without pre-defined outcome that incorporates the lessons of practical experience.
d) The party reform is thus not to be conducted merely on the basis of activities emanating from party headquarters. Crucial areas where internal changes can (and must) be implemented are the party organizations in the Federal states and municipalities.
e) The party reform will extend over a longish period. Yet time is pressing for the PDS. By about mid-2003 the first important step must be made with a view to kicking off the entire process.

(6)
There is no shortage of ideas for projects relating to the subject of “structure”. Some of these involve aspects of “reshaping” party structures. The general idea is to consolidate district and grass-roots organizations in such a way as to make them correspond better to the regional political and economic structure. There are also efforts to give existing structures greater flexibility, so as to make it easier for members with other demands on their time (employed persons, students, etc.) to take part in the life of the party. Thirdly, ways have been devised of developing what are known as “loose” organizational forms with a view to attracting young people, intellectuals and new members. Such “virtual associations” would bring together young or new members devoted to special interests or fields of activity.

(7)
The subject of “communication”, so important to party reform, also has various facets. A major focus is the improvement of the party’s publicity work, especially the effective and media oriented presentation of messages which the PDS wishes to get across. Both at the Federal level and within the framework of the regional organizations intensive work must continue to be done in this respect. In the field of inner-party communication there are several projects focusing on the use of the Internet for party work. This concerns the rapid dissemination of information (political documents, statements, arguments, events, etc.), the development of forms of dialogue (debates, the comparing of notes), and the forming of contact networks in PDS organizations (“networked district associations” etc.).

(8)
In recent years there have been several projects in which ways of recruiting new members were discussed. There is now a need to intensify our efforts in this field and to broaden their scope. Possible methods include publicity campaigns, the use of trained “team organizers”, and specific educational events. This will require new organizational forms. The idea is to replace some of the “traditional” grass-roots organizations, which mainly consist of elderly people, with independent groups or project teams.
The experience of the PDS shows, however, that working systematically with new members is at least as important as persuading them to join the party in the first place. Analyses provide concrete evidence that new members have a high potential for commitment: They contribute ideas, are ready to assume functions, and in most cases bring a fresh approach to party work. Not infrequently, however, they have to endure a long period in the PDS of being treated as outsiders who are expected to concentrate on acquiring experience, so that quite a few of them leave the party. The disturbing fact that the party loses hundreds of members in this way every year underscores the urgency of this problem.

(9)
Enabling the PDS to operate effectively in the public eye is another focus of the intended party reform. In the election campaigns of the 1990s the PDS was often able (by means of information stands, demonstrations, cultural campaigns, etc.) to attract attention to itself with its public activities and enter into discussions with the general public. At present this ability is diminished, however. The high average age of members, the lack of clear statements and demands, and not least the recurring problems with the German mentality (which resists the notion that public activities can be fun as well), constitute barriers that will have to be overcome. The move towards party reform thus includes efforts to make political action days part of the regular PDS routine.

(10)
The discussions on party reform held in recent months brought new information to light about quite a number of regional and grass-roots initiatives for the renewal of the party. These included:
* Reshaping of leadership bodies in such a way that old and young members are equally represented and complement one another;
* Intensive work with local PDS newspapers;
* Internet projects for comparing notes and pooling information;
* Discussion groups with small businessmen close to the PDS;
* Special workshops for recruiting new members.
An important component of party reform will consist in systematically discussing these and other experiences. This will take the form of national party conferences, the first of which is planned for June 2003.

(11)
In the course of the steps towards party reform in the PDS a lot of useful experience has been gained. The following points are particularly worthy of mention:
a) A process as complex as the internal modernization of a party calls for intensive political leadership. The party’s leading bodies must undertake thorough analyses, define realistic goals, and above all develop an ability to steer discussions and learning processes.
b) The greatest resistance to party reform is to be found less in the complexity of the tasks, but in a lack of awareness of the problem on the part of many party officials. As long as party reform is regarded as “a peripheral task” and not as an issue that is vital to the party’s very survival, the road to renewal will continue to be blocked.
c) Grounds for optimism, on the other hand, are to be seen in the spontaneous and innovative approaches adopted by numerous regional party organizations (small-scale projects and experiments). Learning from the experience of the grass-roots of the party must also be a vital component in the future stages of the reform.

(12)
It may be assumed that questions of inner renewal are currently on the agenda for quite a few left-wing parties, some of whose problems are general and some specific. The intensive pooling of experience would therefore appear to be necessary and a promising way forward. From the point of view of the PDS there are two sets of problems – among a host of others – that are of primary interest:
* What kind of “internal party relations” do we want to have between the members engaged in parliamentary activities (parliamentary parties, office-holders and their staffs) and the party’s other organizations? This concerns, for example, matters of co-ordination and information, coping with political differences, the long-term preparation of decisions and their transparent dissemination.
* What requirements do the internal structure and fabric of a party have to meet if it wants to be an active partner of professional and industrial associations, citizens’ groups and social movements? To what extent can a party absorb “elements” of a movement without losing its special character as a political organization? How must the day-to-day work of the party be organized under such conditions?