Local party branches are where the magic happens - it's where bottom-up politics shape the Social Democratic Party's future. But membership figures have been declining for years. The party's heart might be in trouble.
Several gray-haired men sit in a room at Gabelsbergerstraße 12 in Gelsenkirchen, in Germany's Ruhr Region. This is where the party executive committee of the local branch of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) - Gelsenkirchen Altstadt - comes together once a month. The room is rarely more than half full.
That's a problem the entire SPD has been battling for years. Long gone are the golden days of the 1970s when the party had more than 1 million members on the books. Since then, figures have consistently dropped - with the exception of the brief period shortly after German reunification. At the end of 2012, the party could only count 477,037 members, though that still beat the membership figures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The meeting in Gelsenkirchen always follows the same routine, as one member takes the lead for the night and moderates the discussion. There is an agenda, with topics ranging from local to national politics, from complaining residents to internal problems.
Like a family
Proceedings are rather dry at this session, but the meeting is part of the essence of the local branch. It's where bottom-up politics happens; the power and political line of the national party is shaped by its local constituents. Members in the SPD's more than 13,000 local branches elect delegates to the next level, where they in turn elect delegates to the next level and so forth until they decide on the national party executive committee.
But such a local branch doesn't only fulfill its political function - for many active members it has also become a sort of family, said Albert Ude, deputy head of the local SPD branch.
"It really stirs up trouble if people are standing in front of the door and the session has been cancelled," he said. His local branch meets every Tuesday. Last week, the group went on a biking tour together, and the next cultural activity is planned for June.
But the few people who make it to tonight's meeting raise the question of whether the SPD can still be considered a catch-all party. It definitely doesn't represent a cross-section of the population. This branch here is dominated by men - only two women showed up to tonight's meeting. And only two of the people in attendance are younger than 35.
Lack of youth troubles the party
"There are still a lot of young people who participate, but it's definitely not like when Willy Brandt [German SPD chancellor from 1969 to 1974] was in office - where the 15- to 25-year-olds were flocking to the party," said Nina Schadt, 39, who heads the local branch.
According to her deputy, 26-year-old David Peters, the condensed and busy schedules at German universities due to EU education reforms has also played a part. Between the ages of 20 and 30, people are more likely to focus on their jobs than get involved in a political party, he said.
As the meeting continues, Ude moves on to the next item on the agenda. Some people seem to be listening intently, while others look bored. A cell phone rings. Next on the list are complaints from citizens - on this particular day it's on the issue of remodeling a public space downtown so that everyone is pleased - people in the retirement homes as well as young kids who need playgrounds. Just another part of local politics.
Traditional working class disappeared with the coal mines
Most of the current SPD members completed higher education. The typical blue-collar worker, formerly a large part of the party's base, has almost vanished. In Gelsenkirchen that was primarily coal miners and steel workers. Like most other cities within the Ruhr area, Gelsenkirchen was for decades a center for coal mining and heavy industry.
But with mines closing down and the demise of the steel industry, the traditional working class in Gelsenkirchen disappeared - and with that, a large part of the SPD voters. "The SPD lost a part of its infrastructure back then," said Schadt.
According to Schadt and her team, it's important to show people in Gelsenkirchen that they are open to new ideas from outside the party ranks. That's an important lesson the SPD learned in the 1999 local election, when for the first time in history the SPD didn't secure the majority of the votes in Gelsenkirchen.
The results of the last local election in 2009 saw the SPD once again take the majority of the electorate, though just barely over 50 percent.
Schadt said it's important to turn to the party's grassroots organizations, the source of the party's strength. "There used to be this tendency at the national level not to listen to the grassroots opinion," she said.
Dealing with Agenda 2010
Agenda 2010, crafted a decade ago by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and seen as one of the most controversial reforms of Germany's social and labor market systems, divided the party. It's also still an issue in Gelsenkirchen.
Peters thinks the biggest problem was that the reforms hadn't been properly discussed with party members. The national leaders pushed for their agenda and in turn, many unhappy people decided to leave the party, though according to Peters Gelsenkirchen didn't experience as great an exodus. Today, the local branch takes a pragmatic approach and says that the fundamental consensus of the agenda would no longer be criticized.
It's almost 9 p.m. and people are starting to get fidgety. Someone is whispering on the phone as Schadt finishes up the last item on today's agenda. On May 25 the members are planning to meet up to celebrate the party's 150th anniversary. For the moment, though, it seems as if Schadt will still be the only woman at the event.