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Germany: SPD party congress votes for talks on Grand Coalition

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In the end, the decision at the SPD's special party congress on January 21st on whether to enter negotiations for a Grand Coalition with the conservative parties was so close that it went to a card vote. This itself was a success for the opponents of any negotiations, although the Executive's proposal in favour of talks did win, with 362 votes (56.4 percent) against 279.

The party leadership took every opportunity to get the delegates in line. SPD vice-president "Malu" (Maria Luise Anna) Dreyer, who won the election in Rhineland-Palatinate in 2017, opened the party congress with a welcome address, spoke out in favour of the negotiations but "understood" people's reservations. Then followed North Rhine Westphalia leader Groschek, whose defeat in the state elections was still written in his face. He blethered on for some time about responsibility and the great opportunities offered by government. This was followed by another hour of former chancellor candidate and party leader Schulz. After some 2 hours of this, the official debate on the exploratory result was allowed to begin. Those who spoke out against a new coalition were greeted with loud applause while those in favour, mostly Executive members could only offer "necessities" and pragmatism.

Their arguments were that, since the conservative "Union" parties, the Christian Democrats, CDU, and the Christian Social Union, CSU, did not want to form a minority government, the SPD was obliged to form a coalition; the SPD should not leave the country in their hands alone; the "French and Europeans" - Macron apparently called Schulz on behalf of millions of people - were waiting for a new European policy, so social democracy had to form a government with the Union. Ultimately and even more mendaciously: there is a strong shift to the right, the CSU is xenophobic anyway, so... the Grand Coalition should be seen as an "anti-fascist bulwark" of the SPD.

The Executive Board's justification - renewal through coalition
Even before the special party congress, public and internal debates showed it was not going to be easy for the SPD executive. After the collapse of negotiations between the Union parties, the Greens and the Liberals, it was clear that their conclusions and proposals would be controversial amongst the membership and, therefore, among the 600 delegates.

Not only had the Young Socialists registered an objection since December, but also the party organisation in Saxony-Anhalt and the Berlin SPD leadership had spoken out against the initiation of coalition negotiations. The contradiction was especially clear in North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse, which together sent over 200 delegates to the congress.

For this reason, a "compromise" was presented to congress in the form of a set of negotiating guidelines including, for example, moves to end the so-called "dual standard" medical treatment and higher figures for the family reunification of refugees. This is nothing unusual in itself, except that the CDU, and especially the CSU, had already announced that they would not respond to any further demands from the SPD. Nonetheless, this manoeuvre successfully secured a majority, as intended.

The country first
Dreyer, Schulz, Weil and Scholz played the usual siren song - first the country, then the party. In fact, this means: first the compromises with the Union, based on the interests of big business and the trade unions tied into "social partnership", then pragmatic agreement on policy and finally some dazzling references to EU policy. Regarding Schulz's "outstanding result", it quickly became clear that there was little outstanding about it at all. The old dogma, "Opposition is crap, one must enter government to achieve anything at all" still guides the party.

The SPD has been singing this old song for a long time. As a constitutionally loyal party, it buried the class point of view early in its history, at the latest in 1914. Today, the EU and local patriotism in particular serve as justification for government participation. In particular, DGB head Hoffmann, who once again supported the unions' association with the party, wants to persuade the SPD and the unions to overcome the "neo-liberal spirit" in the EU. Of all things, he expects to do this through a Grand Coalition!

The credibility crisis
Needless to say, the SPD leadership is not completely unaware that its social basis is dwindling. Even some of the Executive recognise that the electorate no longer buys the SPD's "commitment" to the working class and those on low incomes. Correctly, the Young Socialists and other delegates pointed out that the U-turn by Schulz, who had promised "no more coalitions" on the night of the elections in September, had not gone down well with either members or voters.

Neither are the exploratory talks and coalition negotiations anything to celebrate. De facto, the CSU enforced its "refugee policy", whereas the SPD did not enforce its "red lines" with regard to citizens' insurance, or the top tax rate. Plenty of delegates could imagine what the next Grand Coalition would mean for the working class.

The SPD would be seen as providing a majority for the CDU/CSU, perhaps moderating some of the Union's worst excesses but nothing more. The Young Socialists in particular pointed out that the SPD is no longer perceived as an opposite, but as a supplement, to the Union, and that it is therefore difficult to see how it could win nationwide elections against it.

Undoubtedly, the Young Socialists' chairman Kevin Kühnert and other speakers from the party's youth wing, as well as delegates from Hesse, NRW and Berlin, reflected the mood of the voters and active members at the grassroots. Even if it was not enough to win a No vote at the party congress, it is clear that the internal crisis and inner conflict of the SPD is certainly not over. Rather, it makes it clear that a large minority of delegates, despite a united Executive, do not want to go along with the new disaster of a Grand Coalition.

This not only expresses more "heart", but also far more brains, than the political lemmings of the Executive, who want to follow Merkel into her own abyss. Above all, however, the debate also reveals the contradictory nature of the SPD as a bourgeois workers' party. While it has stood firmly on the ground of the existing order for over a century, that is, it has been pursuing bourgeois politics through and through because it defends capitalist rule, it is - unlike the Union parties - a "special" bourgeois party because it is organically based on the working class via historically established bonds such as voter composition, membership and, above all, through the trade unions.

Undoubtedly, the policies of the SPD governments since Schröder, as well as those of the trade union leaders, have led to an accelerated weakening of this bond and, in recent years, this has unfortunately benefited the right wing and the Alternative for Germany, AfD.

The opposition between the supporters of the coalition and its opponents, which ws revealed at the party congress and is shaking the SPD today, makes very clear the gulf between its bourgeois politics and leadership on the one hand and its social basis on the other.

The goal of revolutionaries must be to exacerbate and deepen this contradiction. This is where the opportunity lies for the next few weeks. Any agreement for a coalition has to be agreed by the membership and this presents a great opportunity for the opponents of a Grand Coalition.

Despite the political limitations of their reformism, the Young Socialists' "No" campaign can become a means of preventing that coalition. The many young people joining to take part in the vote shows that this internal polarisation is advancing and has a chance of success. There is no doubt that members of the Executuve will try to discredit these people as "opportunists" and question their right to vote. After all, the much-vaunted "opening" and "renewal" of social democracy should not be allowed to produce the "wrong results".

All the same, as important as the influx of new members is, the decisive factor will be the party's union members. While leaders support a Grand Coalition faithfully, many so-called "ordinary" members already know what to expect from it - namely nothing. The public services are still being cutback and privatised, the situation in nursing care is appalling, even though the SPD was part of the government and not in opposition, and the European policy of austerity, fortress Europe and creeping armaments is happening under the "big" Europeans such as Schulz and Macron.

This policy deserves to be taught a lesson, and that is now a possibility. The vote at the grassroots offers opportunities to exert influence on the SPD membership for the Left Party and also the "radical, extra-parliamentary left" on a scale that has not been seen for years. The left-wing forces outside the SPD must seek direct dialogue with union members, Young Socialists and the Falken youth group. The trade union bosses clearly supported the exploratory talks, but the Falken and the Young Socialists were against. They must be urged to form a strong opposition to the sell-out course of the party and trade union leaders. Together with them, we must agitate against the coalition agreement and take action to resist the policies of the new federal government, whoever forms it.