Oskar bangs the drum

The German social democrats are no longer a model for centre-left parties in Europe. Robert Leicht considers whether electoral failure can be blamed on the 1968 generation
January 20, 1996

The gloomy old disciplinarian of the German left could turn out to have been an optimist. "This could last 15 years," warned Herbert Wehner, the ageing chairman of the SPD parliamentary fraction in 1982, when the social democrats were dispatched into opposition by Helmut Kohl.

If the German social democrats do regain power in 1998, Wehner's prognosis will have been proved almost exactly right. But few would lay much money on that outcome at present. If anything, the SPD is disappearing deeper into the political wilderness. Its dismal performance in recent local elections and opinion polls seems a fair reflection of its drift and confusion.

It seems unthinkable that a party with the SPD's history and roots in German society could never regain national political power. After all, it has 820,000 members and an annual income from the state of about ?35m. More to the point: it runs virtually all of Germany's L?nder governments. Through its control of the German upper house, the Bundesrat, the SPD also has some veto power over Kohl's government.

Even in opposition, such facts have in the past made it the envy of its sister social democratic parties throughout Europe. No longer. Whereas in the UK dissatisfaction with the government still translates into support for Tony Blair's opposition, in Germany the connection seems to have been broken. Kohl's government is unpopular and yet the opposition seems to be even more so. Is this just a passing phase or does it reflect some deeper crisis within the German left?

The arguments for a deep-seated crisis are compelling. Take the personnel problem. For 20 years the SPD was led by Willy Brandt; and then for almost as long by the troika of Willy Brandt, Herbert Wehner and Helmut Schmidt. But since losing power in 1982 there has been no continuity. In that time there have been four party chairmen: Hans-Jochen Vogel, Bj?rn Engholm, Rudolf Scharping, and now Oskar Lafontaine; three leaders of the parliamentary fraction in Bonn-Vogel, Hans-Ulrich Klose and Scharping-and four candidates for the chancellorship: Vogel, Johannes Rau, Lafontaine and Scharping.

This merry-go-round is both the cause and the consequence of failure. If the social democrats still believed in their political mission they would have the ideological patience to nurture a leader over years-decades even-as they did with Willy Brandt, who only became chancellor at his third attempt. To cast about so frenetically for successful leaders is not a healthy sign. There must be something in the party's unconscious which doubts its own raison d'?tre.

Ideologically the SPD is also uncomfortable, ill at ease with itself and the trends in German society. In this it has much in common with the centre-left throughout Europe. But the SPD appears to be less adept than some other parties (Blair's Labour comes to mind again) at finding new songs to sing. The much trumpeted sophistication of the Bad Godesberg settlement is nearly 40 years old.

Many years ago Ralf Dahrendorf argued, provocatively, that social democracy was coming to a natural end. The movement had undermined its own reason for political existence by establishing the welfare capitalist state. Does this still hold true? Isn't the European welfare state now in crisis? Do we not need social democracy again? Indeed, are not other classically social democratic themes re-emerging? For example, the return of mass unemployment, or the widening gap, all over Europe, between the haves and the have-nots.

This is the paradox. There are a whole range of social democratic questions, but under the new rules of economic globalisation hardly anyone still believes in the possibility of social democratic answers, certainly not within a single nation state. (Widening the question to a European level may not always help either. If better-off Germans are increasingly reluctant to support less well-off Germans you can be pretty damn sure they will be even more reluctant to support less well-off Spaniards.)

A party such as the German SPD, which believes deeply in its own moral superiority and the possibility of rational political change, seems paralysed by these new realities; unable to think new thoughts.

In these circumstances the German political system itself may also be a hindrance to recovery for the SPD. In a straight two-party system the opposition will always benefit eventually, when the government finds it can no longer renew itself while remaining in office.

In a multi-party system such as Germany's, the parties are under much greater competitive pressure. The opposition cannot simply point out the government's failures. It must also answer the question: with whom would you enter into coalition government? The difficulty of answering this question with any conviction is compounded by the fact that the opposition parties-big and small-are usually competing with each other for floating voters. The German social democrats now face competition from three sources: the liberal Free Democrats, with whom the SPD was last in government; the Greens; and now the post-communist PDS (heir to the old ruling Communist party in the former east Germany).

The SPD is caught in a particularly difficult bind between the Greens and the PDS. The Greens, with their post-industrial eco-politics, emerged as a competitor in the 1980s for the votes of the 1968 generation, and young voters. Green policies, especially since the pragmatists took over, now overlap substantially with those of the SPD; but the Greens retain their appeal as a pressure group to make sure those policies are implemented in government. The PDS pulls in a different direction, not so much looking forward to a post-industrial nirvana as looking back to the traditional social democratic ways of the 1960s and 1970s.

In trying to appeal to Green and PDS voters the SPD is not only torn between old and new-it is also torn between east and west. The PDS is a genuine regional party for east Germany, while the Greens genuinely represent important groups in west German society. Any attempt to gain power as a threesome would fail-and would break open many of the carefully concealed conflicts within social democracy itself. If the SPD were confident of its own political mission it might be easier for it to handle the m?nage ? trois. But it is not.

So perhaps it is no wonder that the SPD is trying yet another change of leader. Oskar Lafontaine is one of the leading figures in what is scathingly described as the "Tuscan fraction"-left of centre politicians who are sophisticated and gifted, but lack the political ruthlessness of their right-wing opponents. He has already failed once as the chancellor candidate in 1990 (the reunification election), partly because his cosmopolitanism went down like a lead balloon in east Germany. Five years later he wins credit for his honesty about the economics of unification. By German standards he is charismatic and unpredictable. Indeed, he unexpectedly won the nomination at November's Mannheim party conference on the strength of an empty but exhilarating speech. Yet what makes him a darling of the SPD rank and file makes him a doubtful candidate to lead Germany.

The frustrations that led the SPD to install the high-risk Lafontaine as leader (although not necessarily chancellor candidate) have also led to risk-taking over policy. It was Lafontaine himself, before the last election, who first broke the cross-party consensus in favour of a single European currency. Other SPD leaders have now started raising objections too-hiding their opportunism behind economic orthodoxy.

Lafontaine carries awesome hopes on his Napoleonic shoulders. He is almost bound to disappoint. For once the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung newspaper was the most cutting: it described a repetition of the confrontation between Kohl and Lafontaine in 1998 as the politics of Jurassic Park. Is this a failure of German politics? Many older social democrats certainly believe that their party has failed. And they do not look far for a culprit. It is, in their view, a failure of a specific generation-the 1968 generation.