Ahoy the Berlin Pirates (and what it means for the left in Europe)

pirates posterBy Jon Worth / @jonworth

As last week’s column appeared on LabourList, voters in Berlin were going to the polls to choose the 149 members of the Abgeordnetenhaus, the parliament for the state of Berlin and one of the 16 states of Germany. Full election results can be found here.

At one level little changed – the left was in power before and it still is, and Klaus Wowereit of the Social Democrats is still Mayor. The intrigue came in the composition of the left-wing vote, and the rise of Germany’s newest political movement – the Pirate Party – who entered the state parliament for the first time, coming from nowhere to secure 8.9%. The free-market liberals (FDP), in Merkel’s coalition nationally, polled less than 2% and dropped out of the parliament entirely.

The Pirate Party started in Sweden in 2006, growing out of the political debate following the Pirate Bay trial. The party gained international recognition by winning a seat in the European Parliament in 2009. The Berlin election is the next stage of its development.

But who votes for the Pirates, and why does it matter?

In Berlin the party collected 129795 votes, with 17000 switching from the Greens, 14000 from the Social Democrats, 13000 from the Left Party. Importantly it gained 23000 votes from people who had never voted before. The party collected more votes in the former east than the west. [Statistics here.]

While the party itself rejects traditional notions of left and right in politics, its support comes clearly from parts of the population that traditionally voted left. Its parliamentary representation, with 14 of its 15 parliamentarians being youngish, nerdy men, is reflective of the basis of its support.

The Pirates today did what the Greens in Germany started to do in the 1970s and 1980s – to become an edgy, alternative political force. The Greens were a post-class party, moving the left beyond a link with blue collar workers. Today the Pirates are almost a post-party; their election poster shown is testament to this – “We have the questions – You have the answers” the poster says, explaining how the party is in favour of new forms of citizen participation in the democratic process.

The support for the Pirates in Berlin is a further stage of the fracturing of the left in Europe. While Wowereit remains Mayor, and the left overall gained at the expense of the right, support for the Social Democrats actually dropped 2.5%, statistics not dissimilar to Denmark’s general election.

In Berlin this time the Social Democrats will form a coalition with the Greens, enough to comfortably form a majority in the state parliament, but both these parties will be a little nervous looking forward to 2013 and the next national elections to the Bundestag. While the Pirates are unlikely to reach the 5% required nationally to gain parliamentary representation in 2013, even a few percentage points for them might make it considerably harder for the Social Democrats and Greens to form a government nationally.

The challenge then for the mainstream left is how to gather support from the sorts of voters who now vote Green and may in the future vote Pirate – the post-class vote, the nerd vote, the ‘lifestyle politics’ vote – and to then build parliamentary coalitions with these parties. Without a proportional election system in the UK, the challenge for Labour is to draw these groups into the party through an internal modernisation process – no easy task.

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