März 17, 2021

Winds of Change in Die Linke

Cornelia Hildebrandt

After its last conference, the party has a new political agenda, a new party executive, and stronger ties to the EU – in englischer Sprache!

Janine Wissler and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, the new co-chairs of Die Linke.
Photo: Martin Heinlein/Die Linke

After having to be pushed back multiple times due to COVID-19, Die Linke’s party conference finally took place digitally on 26 and 27 February 2021. Of the 580 selected delegates—half of them women, in line with the party’s federal statute—more than 560 were taking part in the first-ever online conference in the party’s history. The objective of the conference was to set the political agenda for the next two years by discussing a main policy motion, and also to elect a new party executive including a new leadership, as Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger were unable to stand again after being in the post for eight years.

Both missions were carried out successfully, with strong participation of the members and despite the event taking place in the digital realm. A main policy motion intended to set the course for the party was agreed and the baton was passed to a new generation of party executives. The party’s executive is younger, more feminist, and has stronger ties to western Germany.

In stark contrast to the conservative Christian Democratic Union’s digital party conference, which took place earlier this year, Die Linke’s delegates were keen to debate issues and highlighted disagreements within the party. A large majority then backed the main policy motion as a shared foundation for the battles ahead.

Who Was Elected and What Do They Stand For? 

For the first time, Die Linke will be led by two women, both with different backgrounds and representing different movements within the party. Janine Wissler hails from western Germany and was leader of Die Linke in the Hessian state parliament. She also used to be part of “Marx21”, a group within the party that leans toward left-wing radical and anti-capitalist policies. Susanne Hennig-Wellsow is from the eastern part of the country and was previously the party leader in Thuringia where she served alongside Bodo Ramelow, the country’s only state premier from Die Linke, who won over 30 percent of the vote in the state’s last election. Both women are thus aware of the potential and the limits of left-wing parliamentary politics. Moreover, both are in favour of broad social alliances and policy shifts that have widespread societal support and can only be achieved by forming coalitions with the social-democratic SPD and the Greens. 

During the election of their deputy leaders and, lastly, all 44 members of the party’s executive, visible power shifts within the party could be seen. Traditional factions within Die LINKE, such as the “Anti-Capitalist Left” (AKL), whose adherents have included Sahra Wagenknecht, and the “Socialist Left” (SL) with its once influential grouping involving one of Germany’s largest trade unions, IG Metall, are clearly not as influential as they used to be. The same can be said of those considered reformers back when Die Linke was still the Party of Democratic Socialism—they only just managed to win one seat on the executive committee.

Overall, the party is now younger, more academic, and more representative of western Germany and the LGBTQI community. A noticeably high number of candidates for the party executive highlighted the party’s environmental and social challenges. Die Linke has strong ties to climate change and environmental movements, with new links to representatives and activists especially those in the service workers’ union, Ver.di. Local political actors who sit on the party executive are also gaining influence and can thus bring the views of the party’s grassroots to the table.

Another positive development is that Die Linke’s executive will now also include the co-chair of the Left group in the European Parliament, Martin Schirdewan, thus strengthening the party’s European policy expertise. Also, the greetings of Waltraud Fritz-Klackl, member of the secretariat of the Party of the European Left (EL), who emphasized the importance and responsibility of Die Linke towards the EL, were received with great interest.

All this is certainly encouraging. After all, a Left that aims to fundamentally change society needs not only to be able to specify the benefits of democratic socialism, it also requires strategic, political, and social alliances and individuals that authentically embody these coalitions and understand their significance. Moreover, left-wing politics must look beyond Germany’s borders, take a realistic view of the vastly different ways of life in society and the ever-expanding gap between them, and focus on finding solutions to people’s everyday challenges: it needs to concentrate specifically on those areas where politics directly impacts people’s lives. All of this requires a political compass like the one set out in the main policy motion at the party conference.

A Foundation for Future Battles 

In the 27-page document, Die Linke describes itself as a socialist and feminist party that wishes to push back against the endless quest for profit and put people at the heart of its policies; as a party that wishes to pursue radical Realpolitik that tackles problems at their root. Die Linke thus describes itself as a party that wishes to bring about a shift in social and ecological policy, which involves asking questions of ownership and in which large corporations and banks are taken into public hands, thus bringing them under democratic control and ensuring they serve the public interest.

Die Linke stands for a new “social prosperity model” in which people have collective control over their employment and living conditions, and have guaranteed protection against poverty as well as access to education and vocational training, universal healthy living conditions and time prosperity, i.e. a four-day or 30-hour week, so that everyone has enough time for their social relationships, families, participation, and relaxation.

This prosperity model shares many concepts with the left Green New Deal and with the expansion of public services. This includes local healthcare, childcare facilities, schools, publicly funded housing, and zero-carbon mobility for all by developing a local public transport network that is free to use. To fund these measures, Die Linke is fighting for a more just taxation and social security system financed through capital taxes, inheritance tax reform, and a solidarity pact to better address the structural changes taking place in former mining regions. 

Die Linke is fighting for a minimum wage of 13 euro per hour and a reduction in working hours without reducing salaries or staffing levels. The party demands that all those working in the care sector—including agency workers—receive a 500-euro pay rise. The party is also calling for safe staffing levels in the sector to be calculated differently and for the removal of standard diagnosis-related fees in the healthcare sector.

Die Linke demands improved living and employment conditions, better protection of migrant workers in the care sector and in the construction, transport, agricultural, and food industries. This should also include those employed by logistics companies such as Amazon. The current COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the need for better social protections for freelancers, artists, and students, not only during the pandemic but in the years to come. Die Linke is in favour of unemployment benefit reform and the implementation of a pension scheme that all workers pay into.

Indeed, Die Linke presents itself as a party that considers social and environmental issues together, focusing its attention primarily on those currently having to live and work under precarious conditions during the COVID-19 crisis—if they even still have a job.

Die Linke will never accept war as the continuation of politics by other means. The party campaigns to end the foreign deployment of German troops, is against the militarization of the EU and rejects EU-level armaments cooperation and the acquisition of European fighter drones. The party rejects the European Defence Fund, which has a colossal budget of 7 billion euro. Instead of increasing military spending to two percent, this figure should be dramatically cut. A proposal to reduce this to one percent and to allocate the remaining sum to the development policy budget was rejected by the majority at the party conference, who instead voted in favour of a basic objection to any military budget. Another proposal to permit UN peacekeeping missions under certain conditions was also rejected. 

Cornerstones of European Policy

Furthermore, conference delegates confirmed the party’s stance on certain issues as set out in its 2011 manifesto. These are: disbanding NATO and instead setting up a system of collective security involving Russia, disbanding the border and coast guard agency Frontex and reinstating the right to asylum.

In terms of European policy, the party calls for a thorough review of EU treaties. It also argues that one trillion euro should be made available to set up a European spending and investment scheme funded through bonds issued by several states, i.e. euro/corona bonds. These would be specifically offered to economically weaker states and regions, especially to fund socio-ecological industrial policies and to boost healthcare, digital infrastructure, education and research, as well as to support the transition to greener forms of transport and energy in EU countries. Coal should be phased out by 2030, and carbon neutrality should be achieved by 2035.

Key Areas of Focus for the Federal Elections

Die Linke will also continue to develop its organisational policy in consultation with local branches and party members in local government. They will be invited to share their thoughts on the campaign ahead of the federal elections taking place in September 2021. Here conference delegates suggested the following key points:

  • Addressing the shortage of nurses
  • Stopping rent increases
  • Introducing measures to promote bus and train travel and a free-to-use public transport system
  • Fighting to retain jobs as well as for better wages and employment conditions

Die Linke and its leadership put forward an image of a party ready to fight for social and environmental transformation and open to forming a coalition with the SPD and the Greens—if agreement on all main issues can be reached. The vast majority—over 80 percent of delegates—agreed to this approach. “Let’s not wait a moment longer: we need to be ready!” Susanne Hennig-Wellsow exclaimed as she laid out her platform, thus expressing what the majority in Die Linke have wanted to see for months: change. Hopefully, this shift will also be reflected in the many elections taking place this year, including federal elections this September, with the emergence of a politically and socially renewed left.

Cornelia Hildebrandt is the co-president of transform! europe, where this article first appeared.