Under Andrea Nahles the party is moving to the left but that’s a risky electoral strategyby Paul Lever / February 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
Social democracy was born in Germany and it was a social democrat, Friedrich Ebert, who was the country’s first democratically elected head of state. Since the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949 the Social Democrat Party (SPD) has always been one of the two biggest parties in the Bundestag, sometimes the biggest; and three chancellors, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder, have been social democrats.
But Schroeder left office in 2005 and since then the party’s political fortunes have been in steady decline. It has been the junior partner in a coalition with the Christian Democrats for nine of the last 13 years and, as Angela Merkel has wryly observed, the junior partner in a coalition is punished the most. At the last federal election in 2017 it got 20.5 per cent of the vote and its current national poll rating is between 15 and 16 per cent—behind the Greens and not far ahead of the populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD). Its leader, Andrea Nahles, is coming under increasing pressure to change the party’s direction and is showing signs of beginning to do so. Her conclusion seems to be that it is time to forget the centre ground and move back to the left.
The Social Democrats need to reinvent themselves. But does Nahles have the answer? And what lessons should be drawn from social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe?
A key moment in the history of German social democracy since the Second World War was the SPD congress in Bad Godesberg in 1959. There the decision was taken to support a social market democracy, rather than to seek to overthrow capitalism; and to aspire to be a Volkspartei, a “people’s party” with support from wide sections of society rather than a narrow class-based one. For this the figure of 20 per cent is totemic. It is generally accepted in Germany that a party which falls below this threshold cannot claim Volkspartei status.
In the past the SPD has prospered when it has had a leader with charisma and when it has seemed to be in tune with the times. Brandt and Schmidt were both popular national figures. Brandt was widely, albeit not universally, admired for seeking through his Ostpolitik a better relationship with eastern Europe and the Soviet Union;…