Media savvy and part of the fledgling European new young left movement, Julia Herr represents everything that Austria’s Wunderkind Sebastian Kurz doesn’t.
There are 2 primary qualities that the modern European left must possess to not only gain power but re-emerge as a force for positive societal change again. One is a bold vision with the correct transformative policies which put the interests of people before the interests of Corporations. The second is the political skill and nous to both gain power and wield it to advance the progressive changes needed. However, it is rare to have any politician these days possess the former, and even rarer to have the potential to possess both.
With Sebastian Kurz and his New Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) movement despite some recent losses still holding on to 35% in the latest opinion polls, despite being embroiled in constant corruption scandals, atrocious handling of the pandemic, and Austria’s economy having the biggest drop off in Europe. The movement still represents a real danger to irrevocably change not just Austria but how the people view politics itself. Much like the Thatcher era forever changed the UK for the worse by not just implementing the policies but also winning the argument and changing how people in Britain view their country and society, the Kurz movement represents the most coherent and slick assault on everything that makes Austria such a successful country. Despite some recent gains and an improvement by Social Democrats (SPÖ) leader Pamela Rendi Wagner, the party has massively lost its way and has been consistently moving to the centre and irrelevance since the glory days of Austrian Social Democracy in the Kreisky era. Although Rendi Wagner represents perhaps the first steps in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether she has the conviction or political skill to win both the argument and eventually power over Kurz and the increasingly emboldened ÖVP.
Since her ascent to the leadership in 2018 Rendi Wagner has mostly faced constant attacks and infighting from the right flank of her party, this flank is like the Keir Starmer wing in the U.K. Labour party as it believes the problem with the SPÖ isn’t it’s ever-increasing professionalisation and moving to the centre over decades but that it needs to be more centrist, slicker, be hardline on immigration and say just about anything to win back power. However, the Kurz movement will not be defeated by this inauthenticity and weakness. They must defeat it with courage and a party that once again like in its heyday in the 1970s presents a bold vision and a strong alternative to the toxic politics of the ÖVP. It must present itself as strong and principled as opposed to the other progressive parties like the Greens who in government have emitted weakness and completely failed to hold the ÖVP to account, and the Neos who represents a socially liberal centre.
Currently, in Austria, there is no politician in the SPÖ ranks with more potential to move the party forward than Julia Herr. Former leader of the SPÖ youth wing and only in parliament since 2019, Herr represents what the future SPÖ can be. Not just a return to the Kreisky era which has passed, but a new vision of proud Socialism which puts people before the interests of the big business. She combines the 2 essential components to be an effective future adversary to the Kurz movement. First, a positive principled vision for a new and fair Austria and Europe, with social and climate justice and the rights of workers over corporations preeminent. Second, she is blunt and frank in calling out the opposition; she isn’t afraid to make it clear whose side the ÖVP are on and whose side the future SPÖ can be on. She has spoken fearlessly in parliament about the ÖVP being the representatives of the super-rich, unlike any other Austrian politician. It’s this kind of honesty that’s needed more than ever in this era.
Social Media savvy may seem the antithesis of a traditional left representing integrity and authenticity. But for the young generation, it is essential as AOC in particular in the U.S. has shown. Engagement with new and especially younger voters requires the successful use of social media. Herr gained over 300,000 views for her excellent online video on how Kurz controls the media, highlighting his ability to control the narrative using pressure and control, his massive increase in his PR media budget including a team of 60 staffers, his use of Gerald Fleischman and the government to control the media narrative and create friendships with newspaper particular Kurier and Kronen Zeitung who are both owned by Kurz’s friend Rene Benko. This excellent summary of how the Kurz machine operates is essential to spread both awareness in the public and to plan a counter-narrative to it. Any hope of defeating Kurz who is quite simply a master at manipulating the media and controlling the narrative must be met by a party and a future leader who both understand how Kurz operates but also have the media savvy and skill to fight back effectively.
Herr also represents policies that not just Austria can get behind, but Europe and the global progressive movement. As SPÖ environmental spokesperson she is a supporter of a European Green New Deal, increased taxes on the rich to pay for the corona crisis, she consistently both supports and highlights workers rights of the new gig and so-called self-employed economy like Über, Mjam, and delivery drivers, she supports the working week being shortened from 40 to 35 hours a week and supports genuinely socialist policies such as the democratisation of corporations. She represents a new exciting vision for the left which can reinvigorate and energise a new generation of left-wing voters after years of decline and a general disillusionment and disengagement with politics from the citizens. Gaining a foothold in Austria currently isn’t easy as the old traditional media very much dominates and there isn’t the same access to a new progressive media landscape that AOC and the Squad could avail of in the U.S.
At this pivotal moment for Austria which is under the most coherent neoliberal assault in the post-war era, the left needs to respond with clarity, strength and once again show they exist foremost to be representatives of the people as opposed to the ÖVP who are completely devoted to representing corporate interests. The failure of the Greens in government to provide an effective bulwark against the ÖVPs worst instincts has further shown that the only real viable answer in response is a strong renewed force coming for the SPÖ who still have allies in a strong trade union movement. Only these forces working together and in unison presenting a new positive vision for socialism and the left can fight against the right and Herrs combination of the vision, moral clarity and political savvy will be what’s needed in the future to lead the party back into relevance and power again. The European left as a whole needs such a renewal of once again making it clear to everyone that the left is about the basic principle of representing Labour over Capital.