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; Schmidt for the way he dealt with domestic terrorism. Schroeder too had great personal appeal and managed successfully to ride the late 1990s zeitgeist, whereas the centre-right Helmut Kohl seemed tired and out of touch after 16 years in power.
The SPD’s current leader is the first woman to hold the post. Nahles is a former chairman of the Jusos, the Young Socialists, and comes from the left wing of the party with strong links to the trade unions. She served as Minister for Labour and Social Affairs between 2013 and 2017. Within the party she is well liked, not least for her personal qualities. She is a devout Catholic and lives on a farm which originally belonged to her great grandparents. She is capable of injecting passion into a political debate.
The question is whether she can truly reinvigorate her party’s electoral fortunes. For she doesn’t have any wider appeal, or communicate well, beyond the SPD itself. Energising left-wing followers is one thing. Winning power quite another.
Nahles’s biggest problem is that neither she, nor her party, are seen as economically competent. She has long been a critic of the labour market reforms, the so-called Hartz IV package, introduced by Schroeder which are considered by many in Germany to have been crucial to the country’s revival in the first decade of the 2000s. More recently she gave a speech in which she explicitly rejected the underlying philosophy of those reforms—that people should be incentivised to find work rather than receive benefits—and demanded more generous pension and unemployment benefits for older workers and a higher minimum wage, all to be financed by taxes on the rich.
The party as a whole soon endorsed her approach. It has left the SPD membership feeling much better about themselves with a new spring in their step. But this was also the case when the party selected Martin Schulz as its candidate for the chancellorship in 2017. Alas the euphoria, and the blip in the opinion polls, only lasted a few weeks.
Nahles’s move has been interpreted as an attempt to consolidate the party’s traditional left-wing base and to prevent any further haemorrhaging of that support. It may do so to some extent. There are parts of the electorate in both east and west Germany who may be persuaded to vote for a more left wing SPD rather than for Die Linke, the communist offshoot party which currently polls around 9 per cent nationally. Some AfD and Green voters may be tempted as well.
But it will probably mean giving up any hope, at any rate in the short or medium term, of having an SPD Chancellor. As Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading political magazine, observed, a shift to the left may, if all goes well, enable the SPD to climb back up to around 25 per cent of the vote; but not to reach the 35 per cent or more which it would need to become the largest party in the Bundestag and which it was able to achieve in the past. If the SPD is not the biggest party in the Bundestag, then the only way it can realistically hope to lead a government is in a coalition with the Greens and Die Linke. Hitherto it has ruled out a coalition at the national level with Die Linke, as have the Greens. But even if this position changes the arithmetic looks unlikely to stack up. Such a coalition would have been mathematically possible in 2005, when the SPD obtained 34 per cent of the vote, but not in any election since then.
Yet the party’s strategy is probably realistic. Elections may be won in the centre ground, but the SPD has been unable to occupy it. Nor indeed have social democrat parties in other European countries. The socialists in France and Italy have been decimated. In the Netherlands they have suffered huge losses. In the Nordic countries, where they once dominated the political landscape, they are struggling. So faced with a similar prospect in Germany a shift to the left may be the best path to survival: the most important goal for the time being.
What is less clear is whether it will mean an early end to the present government coalition. Nahles was instrumental a year ago in steering the SPD towards participation in another Grand Coalition with the centre-right CDU despite its previous rejection of this option. A key factor in the party’s thinking then was the perceived need to avoid another election. This fear will still weigh heavily. The European elections in May will provide the first test of whether the new profile of the party is impressing Germany’s voters.
So, are there parallels between what’s happening to the SPD and the evolution of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn? No, not really. The SPD hasn’t been captured by an entryist clique. There is no Momentum acting as a party within a party. The change in the SPD’s political profile was engineered by the existing party leadership and is supported by most of its parliamentary party. And, although by German standards this is a shift to the left, it is nothing like as radical as the platform on which Labour fought the last general election in Britain. The emphasis is on improvements to social benefits, not on nationalisation or seeking to overthrow the capitalist system. On those rare occasions when Jeremy Corbyn meets his European counterparts he will still be a marginal and exotic figure.