Successful conference of Party for Work and Justice – The Electoral Alternative (WASG) condemns cuts policy of the Left Party.PDS
With more than 200 participants, the conference hall in Berlin’s regional engineering workers’ union (IG Metall) building was jam-packed. The hosts, the Berlin WASG regional committee, were very pleased with the big turnout to this open conference on “The new Left and participation in government”. They were particularly happy to see that WASG members from across the country made their way to Berlin. The objective of the meeting was to discuss and debate the very important question of what position the WASG in Berlin should adopt in the September Berlin regional state elections. The answer to this question is likely to determine the future of the newly formed party. Unfortunately, members of the Left Party.PDS’s regional committee in Berlin, as well as members of the joint Left parliamentary group in the Bundestag, who had been invited to put forward their positions did not use the possibility of arguing their case with the membership.
There is agreement within the WASG that the over 4 million votes for the Left Party.PDS’s open slate on which WASG members stood in last September’s general elections gave a glimpse of the potential which exists for new left force in both East and West of the country. (For more information read Which way forward for the left?) The election result means increased opportunities as well as increased responsibility for the Left in Germany.
A debate has now unfolded on how to seize this potential. A majority of the WASG’s national committee, as well as the majority of the Left parliamentary group, is pressing for a merger between the Left Party.PDS (Linkspartei.PDS) and the WASG. This would imply the WASG and Left Party.PDS standing jointly together in next September’s regional election in the city of Berlin.
The current regional committee of the Berlin WASG is of the opinion that a joint candidacy is only possible on principled policies. But if the WASG merges with a Left Party.PDS that continues to form part of the regional government and as such is undermining wages and living standards in the capital city, this does not help to strengthen the credibility of a new left force. Since its election late last year the Berlin WASG regional committee, on which Socialist Alternative (CWI in Germany), has two members, has argued for the Left Party.PDS to leave the SPD-led regional government. However, it is not very likely that the Left Party.PDS will change its course. The tone set by its local leadership is arrogant and dismissive of the WASG’s demands. They regard their government coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) as a success story.
Berlin- a peculiar situation?
Hans Modrow, honorary president of the Left Party.PDS and the last non-capitalist Prime Minister of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), was the only Left Party.PDS official who accepted the WASG’s invitation and was one of the conference’s platform speakers.
In his contribution, Modrow expressed his own discontent with the policies of his party in Berlin. He made clear that he agrees with Oskar Lafontaine, joint leader of the Left parliamentary group, when he says there needs to be an end to privatisation. He wants to see a continuation of the debate between the two parties and said he hopes for the two parties to come together to fight for social policies in Berlin. While he criticised his own party for not accepting the invitation to the conference, he warned that the Left would be weakened if there were two separate lists in the Berlin elections.
Lucy Redler, a Berlin WASG Regional Executive member and a SAV member, in her platform speech outlined the basic principles for forming a genuine new left force across the country. Lucy said we do not need another party that is the “lesser evil”. A new force needs to be more than just the coming together of the forces currently organised inside the WASG and the Left Party.PDS. A new party needs to strive and reach out to activists in the trade unions and the social movements. It needs to encourage and organise the many who are currently without any political representation. In order to be successful, a genuine party needs to represent the interests of the working class.
In Berlin, this is not an abstract question. The Charité hospital staff, one of Europe’s largest university hospitals with 15,000 employees, is likely to have to take strike action against the Berlin regional government. The workers are being blackmailed and confronted with the “choice” of either accepting wage cuts or being threatened with 1,500 compulsory redundancies. These plans are spearheaded by a Left Party.PDS senator.
Carsten Becker, chair of the public sector union ver.di group in the Charité said he would like to invite anyone to come along and explain to the workforce why they should vote for the Left Party.PDS. The welcome would not be very warm. The Left Party.PDS will be on the other side in the likely case of strike action. Carsten Becker therefore argued that in order to maintain its credibility, the WASG would need to stand independently. Carsten also defied the LeftParty.PDS’s claim to be the representative of the people in east Germany, the party’s base since unification. The Charité is a traditional east German workplace. One third of the workforce is on east German work contracts and therefore disadvantaged when it comes to wages and conditions. Their contracts are “softer” than those of their Western counterparts which makes them easier targets if compulsory redundancies were to be implemented.
Other speakers confirmed the disastrous role of the Left Party.PDS in the implementation of neo-liberal attacks in Berlin. A trade union member explained that the so-called “red-red” city government in Berlin privatised 66% of crèches. They are also responsible for the privatisation of school canteens. In many cases, parents now have to pay €2.20 a meal. People on unemployment benefit (Hartz IV) can spend € 2.80 a day on food for every child. In 2003, 1 in 6 people lived below the poverty line of € 600 a month. This equals a total number of 530,000 people in the city of Berlin. 34,000 are forced to work in so-called “€1 jobs” (jobs paying only 1 euro an hour) in order to not lose their benefits. There are estimates that the coming period will see 40,000 forced evictions of unemployed into cheaper accommodation. These are the daily realities of living under a Left Party.PDS- SPD city government today. As another speaker pointed out, the WASG needs to stand on the side of those affected by evictions forced and carried out by local governments. Where necessary, the WASG needs to play an active part in preventing those forced evictions from taking place. Again, the question of which side the WASG is on is concrete.
Speakers from other areas in Germany where the LeftParty.PDS is also part of regional or local governments confirmed the Berlin experience. In addition to that, SAV member and city councillor Christine Lehnert from the East German coastal city of Rostock, pointed to the fact that the PDS had consistently lost votes between 1994 and 2003. The main reason for an upsurge in votes, Christine said, was the launch of the WASG and then the re appearance of Oskar Lafontaine onto the political stage as a leading member of the WASG. The WASG was the dynamic factor in achieving 8.7% of the vote and 54 MPs on a national scale.
There is huge anger on the part of the unemployed, the working class and the youth. The WASG wants to be the voice of those who do no longer have a political voice. That was why the WASG was launched in the first place. A small minority at the conference, amongst them members of Linksruck (the German affiliate of the British SWP), was more pessimistic and argued that it is not possible to form a new left force without the Left Party.PDS. So, in the name of left unity, they argued against the WASG standing independently in the September Berlin elections. However, the majority in the hall was more confident. Most speakers stressed their willingness to continue discussions with the PDS but for the reasons mentioned above, a joint stand and a united party can only take place on firm political ground. WASG and SAV member Claus Ludwig explained that, as a city councillor for Cologne, he has currently been involved in forming a Left group on that council with LeftParty.PDS councillors. Forming a joint group in Cologne was only possible because the Left Party.PDS members agreed to not carry out cuts and privatisations.
The majority of the conference was confident that the WASG is capable of winning enough support and votes to enter the Berlin regional parliament by itself.
The most important thing however was to maintain credibility and to win the trust of the many who are disillusioned and feel let down by all major parties. In the main, the LeftParty.PDS today is a party which consciously implements neo-liberal policies where it participates in government. Siemen Dalmann, a WASG member from Berlin summed it up when he said “I’d rather be part of a party that gains 4.9% in the elections, stands by its principles but fails to cut cross the 5% hurdle which is required to enter the regional parliament than to be part of a party that gets in and betrays its voters.”
A regional WASG party congress is taking place at the end of February. Following on from that congress, a ballot will be organised within the Berlin WASG membership on whether or not to stand jointly with the LeftParty.PDS.
The Left has won an important battle at the conference. The high turn out, the support from regions outside Berlin, have certainly increased the confidence of those opposed to joining forces with the LeftParty.PDS of today. It is now important to convince the rest of the WASG membership and to prepare the party’s intervention into the important struggles ahead. The coming period will be an important test for the WASG. In order to prove itself as a credible force, the WASG needs to actively support the hospital workers in the Charité Berlin, as well as the public sector and metal workers who are currently involved in wage bargaining negotiations. There is a possibility for a hot spring in Germany and, as part of it, the opportunity for the WASG to substantially grow in members and influence.
Following from the conference, the local press in Berlin had to once more register the WASG as a serious force which is capable of entering the regional parliament out of its own strength.
However, in order to challenge and change a system that has nothing on offer for the working class and youth, the WASG needs to debate alternatives to this crisis-ridden system called capitalism. Georg Kümmel, a WASG and SAV member, asked the conference to use their imagination and for a moment assume that the country was still ruled by a king. Mass protests are taking place because of the king’s unfair taxation of the poor. The king gets a little nervous in the face of those protests. He sends some of his loyal servants to find out what is going on. On their return, the king wants to know if his rule is in danger. The servant’s response is “No. People are angry but they do not question your rule.” The king is pleased. “Well,” he says, “they can keep on protesting then.”
The analogy got a lot of applause from the conference floor. Kings are out of date and so is capitalism, Georg concluded.
SAV members who are an active an integral part of the WASG will continue to argue the case for the WASG to stand firm to its founding principles of opposing all cuts and attacks on working people while, at the same time, arguing that it needs to adopt an anti capitalist and socialist programme to remove the root cause of the crisis Germany faces.