The centre strikes back

Back in January, when the congress of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) voted to pursue coalition talks with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, opponents of the move mounted, as I put it, a “stronger-than-expected” resistance – there was a “no” vote of 43.5%. So when the resulting agreement was voted on last week by the party’s membership, there was a widespread belief that it could be close.

I don’t think anyone was actually tipping it to be defeated, but a lot of pundits emphasised the strength of the opposition and produced flattering profiles of its leader, Kevin Kühnert, the head of the SPD youth wing.

But in reality it wasn’t close at all. With a turnout of 78.4% of the membership, 66% voted in favor of the coalition deal: a margin of about 115,000 votes. Merkel’s fourth government is now expected to be confirmed by parliament on 14 March, almost six months after the election.

Opponents of the grand coalition argued, correctly enough, that the last two such experiences had been associated with a sharp decline in the SPD vote, and that the party was trading a short-term share of power against its longer term viability and separate identity. But they failed to present an alternative strategy to address the problem.

Rejection of the coalition agreement would almost certainly have meant a fresh election, and while the Liberals, who scuppered the previous set of talks, would rightfully have received most of the blame, inevitably voters would have taken out their anger on the SPD as well. Having given Merkel a substantial plurality, they expect the other parties to work with her, not to throw things back to them.

While on the surface this is a dispute about tactics, the SPD ballot became inescapably a left-right question. This fitted the narrative in certain quarters that traces all the woes of social democracy to its embrace of capitalism. And I think it’s undeniably true that, among other things, centre-left voters are looking for some product differentiation.

But the majority of Social Democrats have now expressed clearly their view that turning their back on the mainstream is not the answer. Not everyone is looking for a Jeremy Corbyn.

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