Party Renewal is about Democracy and Participation

By Andrea Nahles

A lively democracy can only work as an inclusive narrative; a narrative that is developed in an open debate. It is shared in society because everybody can join the debate and have a say. This inclusive narrative is the precondition for social cohesion, for peace, for a good society.

Democracy has been invented on the market square. And also today it belongs to the market squares of our time. Political parties have to be present there. Using mass media to send out messages is not enough. Our parties have to re-connect to the everyday-talk of our citizens, if we want to re-connect to the people.

Modern democracy needs modern political parties. They have to change when society changes and today change is urgent. We have to admit that our parties, over the last years, have not always kept pace with developments in our societies and that we have to act on this.

What are the challenges social democratic parties in Europe face?

- Citizens’ expectations of political participation have grown. Citizens are more self-confident and do no longer want to just ‘fit’ themselves into existing organizations. They want to be motors of political life, no longer just transmission belts.

- Working conditions have changed and working-times have become much more flexible. Life is in motion and less predictable. A lot of people move places and cannot stay in a local party organization for a lifetime.

- Role models have changed, too – and this is good: young women and men want to live a different model of partnership, pursue their career and take care of their children. This requires new ways for political parties to organize their work too.

- An increasing number of citizens do no longer actively participate in our democracies. A growing group of citizens stays away not only from political parties but from political debate in general. They stay at home on election day.  Social exclusion is very often linked with disengagement from political life. That is dangerous for our democracies and it is especially harmful for social democratic parties.

Party renewal thus has to be centred on more democracy and participation – in our societies as well as in our parties. Both go hand in hand. Therefore we have to open up our parties internally as well as to society in general. First and foremost we have to take our members seriously and give them more influence on issues and elections. The membership card has to be an invitation to actively shape our parties and societies.

Young men and women, migrants and modern workers have to be more present inside our organizations. A modern party should reflect a modern society and its diversity.

But we also have to invite non-members not just to watch from the sideline but join our activities. We should open up our projects and campaigns to all citizens. Modern parties should not only co-operate with NGOs, social movements and community organisations, but invite citizens to join political debates inside our parties too.

We should remember our roots as a movement for democracy. For a democracy not limited to male land-owners but open for all. From this tradition grows our strength. We should again “dare more democracy” as Willy Brandt demanded. We can be part of a grand narrative called democracy if we are ready to explore new paths.

Andrea Nahles is the Secretary General of the German SPD.

Social Europe Journal