Just over two years ago I joined the Grüne in Germany. My reasons at the time I outlined here. But how has the experience been so far? Reporting about it has been largely absent from my blog and I only tweet about my party political work very sporadically. This blog entry sums up where things stand. I technically joined the party in Prenzlauer Berg, but shortly afterwards moved to Kreuzberg, so this entry concerns my time in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Grüne.
At the start – in comparison to the Labour Party anyway – the Grüne feel very welcoming. There was a meeting for new members, everyone says du to each other (avoiding the danger of putting your foot in it with du and sie) and – in this branch anyway – the members are generally young (I feel old at these meetings and I am in my mid-thirties). Attendance at local meetings is reasonably gender balanced, and there are a few people from ethnic minorities, but I am the only person I am yet to encounter in the party who doesn’t hold a German passport. Overall political parties in Germany are rather lacking in diversity (academic study – PDF).
The normal engagement as a member in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg are the fortnightly Bezirksgruppe meetings. Each lasts a good two and a half hours, starts at 1930, and is attended by 30-70 people. These meetings are at one level open (i.e. anyone can attend, and no-one has ever asked me why I am there), but also intimidating for the uninitiated – it took more than a year before I felt I dared even join the discussion. One especially annoying man always has a point of order, regardless of the topic, and sours the atmosphere for everyone else.
I find the meetings fiendishly difficult to understand, and I am already some sort of political insider – I have years of experience in how parties and politics work. I’m a politics nerd. But the soup of terms and acronymns that are seldom explained is really hard to follow. Some of that might be because I am not a German native speaker, but I am pretty sure it will act to exclude other people too.
Beyond the Bezirksgruppe there are loads of meetings for individual other purposes – party engagement, just to cover the basics, is very time-intensive. Also any engagement that does not entail an actual, old-style meeting, or a street stall, is next to impossible – if you were a parent of young children for example you can basically forget doing anything in the party. That probably partly explains why there are so many young people, and a sprinkling of retired ones, here at the meetings.
Also for a party that is supposed to be one of Germany’s better online parties, the online activity here is pretty damned horrid. The chaotic mass of e-mail lists are basically used to coordinate the offline meetings. Nothing is live streamed, and if there is a proper strategy for online debate or campaigning I have not yet seen it. I’ve started small – by trying to fix some internal communications issues – but on even something that minor the progress is glacially slow.
After the initial openness, and after a dozen or so Bezirksgruppe meetings, the networks of power start to become clear. Many people seem to know each other from the youth branch of the party (Grüne Jugend), and cliques form after the Bezirksgruppe and go off and plot. I wonder whether this is better or worse than the Labour Party’s more obvious factionalism? I also don’t fit a faction – no-one knows whether a British guy in his mid-30s is a realo or a fundi.
One way to overcome the lack of time problem above is of course to be elected to something, or employed by the party. As a result of the demographic change in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg over the years, the party here has been more electorally successful (it has the only Direktmandat in Germany – Ströbele) than it has been successful at recruiting new members – in the process to draft the election programme for the September 2016 elections I was often the only person present at the meetings who had no elected or employed role in the party. This is a party that keeps talking of Basisdemokratie, but that needs some work here.
Having said that the work to draft the policy programme for the Grüne manifesto for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg was one of the genuinely most interesting parts of my engagement so far. If I came with ideas from outside Berlin (for example on open data about rental flats, or on how to solve disputes between noisy restaurants and frustrated neighbours) then my ideas were dealt with thoughtfully. Yet trying to broach something already set – like whether 30km/h zones on main roads work or not – was met with a wall of dogmatic resistance. Tempo 30 ist Tempo 30! Well, what if the sign says 30 but the cars are doing 50? How about, well, some evidence…? Don’t even go there.
I’m also struck by the simultaneous accessibility of the higher level politicians in the party. Bundestag member Ströbele is regularly at the Bezirksgruppe, as are a handful of members of the Abgeordnetenhaus, although their relative back seat role here is also marked – I’m struck by the extent that debate happens more or less for the sake of it, rather than actually for the purpose of getting things done. Likewise there is an absence of solid systems to make things happen within the party – to fix the flow of information to draft a policy programme for example, or to get local candidates in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Bezirksversammlung to have their own websites – this strikes me as odd. Somehow the Basisdemokratie idea somehow feels like it precludes professionalism.
I’m not sure where all of this leaves me, and my engagement in the Grüne. It’s election year in Berlin – elections at the local level (Bezirksversammlung) and Berlin Land level (Abgeordnetenhaus) are happening in September. I’ve got years of campaign experience behind me, and – as much of it is from other political systems – I could really bring something new and interesting here. My job is as a consultant and trainer in online communications for politics – I’d be very happy if the Grüne could use my skills, and I of course will not charge. But to make that worthwhile I’d need to find someone I’d want to work for, someone who can command my respect to a certain extent, someone with a strategic vision who can say this is the way, Jon, and I could do with some help to get me there. But I have not found that yet. Will I ever, I wonder?