Social Democratic Parties need to be a Mirror of Society

By Thorben Albrecht

In most European countries there is a majority of people who could be reached by social democratic values and politics. Nevertheless social democratic parties have not been able to convince this majority over recent years.

Some of the reasons for this development have been policy-decisions of social democratic parties, especially in government. But our parties have also lost touch with the every-day culture of our potential voters and thus have alienated them. One simple but important aspect of this is that our party memberships no longer reflect the full variety of our electorate. In the past this was an important asset of social democratic parties in most European countries. Our parties were able to connect to our electorate because they knew about every-day experiences and moods and – maybe even more important – were able to speak the language of our voters.

The question of whether or not social democracy in Europe can again win majorities will also be decided by whether or not we are able to make party memberships attractive for people from the main groups of our electorate. This does not necessarily mean that we will be able to return to the mass membership of the past. But we have to make sure that our shrinking memberships reflect our (potential) electorate like a mirror.

If the majority of our membership is older, better qualified, more male and less diverse than the general electorate we reach out to, we should not be surprised to be elected by retired teachers only. We will not be able to work out a narrative that includes different perspectives on solidarity and social justice if we do not have more diverse perspectives and views reflected in our leader- and membership.

There are at least two groups of people that are no longer represented enough in our parties – and to make things worse they are very different from each other, too: the first group can be described as the “traditional” voters of social democracy including mainly workers with lower or medium qualifications. Over recent years a growing share of this group has voted for conservative or “traditional” right- and left-wing populists – and even more stayed at home at elections.

The second group consists of younger, better educated voters with white-collar jobs in the private or public sector, mainly living in the larger cities, who tend to increasingly vote for liberal and green parties or “modern” right-wing populists.

Even though this group is open to a narrative based on social democratic values they think our party structures and culture are narrow-minded and old-fashioned. The weekly meetings of our local party associations do not fit their flexible lives. They want to be active on certain issues rather than discuss party tickets for local elections. And they need possibilities to maintain their activity after a job-related move to another city. So we have to develop ideas for how to change our party structures and working methods to attract more of these young urban people to make sure we do not (further) lose our touch with this group.

Reaching out to lower educated working families might be even harder. We had a strong tradition here but keeping in touch with local trade union leaders has been neglected over the last years. And even if we are able to reconnect to them it will not be sufficient. A lot of working class citizens are no longer organised in trade unions, especially if they are unemployed or self-employed.

Many citizens, including large migrant communities, are completely disconnected from any political debate. They do not only stay at home on election day, but are not involved in local issues either. If we were able to mobilize them to go to the polls a majority could be attracted to vote for us – but only if they feel represented in and by our parties.

To win members in these groups we have to go beyond offering attractive structures and career-opportunities. We have to actively get involved in community organisations and reach out to churches, sports clubs and local initiatives. We have to train organizers who work with citizens in the disadvantaged areas of our towns and cities in projects on local development. Investing resources here will pay off.

Social democratic parties in Europe will only be successful if they mirror our societies. The mirror has unfortunately developed quite a few blind spots over the years. It is time to polish it up.

Thorben Albrecht is Head of the Strategy and Policy Department in the Willy-Brandt-Haus, the SPD party headquarter in Berlin.