Germany’s centre-left searches for an identity

A few years ago I had occasion to refer to “the ancient political syllogism”:

  • We must do something

  • This is something

  • Therefore, we must do this

This week it’s the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the spotlight. It certainly needs to do something, and it’s found something to do. The question is whether or not it is the right something.

The crisis of the European centre-left has been a popular topic for the last few years, with Germany one of the leading examples. The SPD vote at the last federal election, in 2017, fell to 20.5% – its worst result since 1932, and within a whisker of being the worst since 1890. Its three worst post-war results have been in the last three elections, and its current poll numbers are worse still.

State elections have shown a similar pattern. In the most recent one, in Thuringia, it lost a third of its vote to record just 8.2%. So the proposition that something has to be done is incontrovertible.

The decline has been associated with the SPD’s participation since 2013 in a coalition government at federal level, as junior partner to the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), led by chancellor Angela Merkel. After the last election, the SPD, realising that it was paying an electoral penalty, resolved to go into opposition rather than sign up for another term in coalition.

But for the second time in four elections, the Liberals (FDP) threw a spanner in the works by walking out on coalition talks with the CDU and Greens (in 2005 it had been the SPD and Greens). That left the CDU-SPD combination as the only feasible route to a majority, and faced with the alternative of fresh elections, the SPD agreed to renew the agreement.

As I put it at the time:

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.

The party’s membership voted two to one to approve the coalition. Now, less than two years later, they appear to have changed their minds. In last weekend’s leadership election, two opponents of the coalition from the party’s left, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, were elected joint leaders, defeating the ticket led by Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s deputy chancellor and finance minister, by 53% to 45.3%.

It doesn’t mean an immediate end to the coalition, but its future now looks precarious at best. Walter-Borjans and Esken say they want to renegotiate the agreement to provide for loosening of fiscal policy, increased welfare and infrastructure spending and stronger action on climate change. The CDU is unlikely to be sympathetic.

In an editorial today, the Guardian admits that “The SPD’s decision to reposition itself on the left is not without risk,” but argues that “a moment of radical renewal was desperately required.” That may be true, but the comparison it makes to Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, currently floundering in the Brexit morass, is hardly encouraging.

An even more relevant example is the Socialist Party in France. Three years ago its voters, saddled with an unpopular president and a decade of centrist economic policy, decided to take the party in a different direction, giving victory in the presidential primary to left-winger Benoît Hamon.

It was a catastrophe. Hamon bled votes to both Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left and Emmanuel Macron, the eventual winner, on the centre. He finished in fifth place with just 6.4%, easily the party’s worst ever result. Many of its leaders (including Hamon himself) have since left and the Socialists are now barely competitive.

Could the SPD go the same way? The Left party is ready to play Mélenchon’s role, and the Greens – already outpolling the SPD by several points – could easily fit the same centrist, progressive niche that Macron has occupied.

It’s been a long road ideologically for the SPD: it was the first major Marxist party, but it broke with the revolutionary element following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and later disowned Marxism at its conference in Bad Godesberg in 1959. Its most successful recent leader was Gerhard Schröder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, who governed in coalition with the Greens.

Schröder pursued market-friendly economic policies, cutting taxes, reforming welfare and opening up the German labor market. But he also maintained progressive credentials, liberalising naturalisation rules and firmly opposing the invasion of Iraq – thus avoiding the disaster that consumed his British counterpart, Tony Blair.

When centre-left parties, including the SPD, avow their determination to steer clear of “Blairism”, it’s Iraq that (understandably enough) they usually have in mind. But the effect is to drive them away from the political centre, and the electoral benefits of that move are, to say the least, still speculative.

6 thoughts on “Germany’s centre-left searches for an identity

  1. That syllogism was described by Humphrey Appleby as ‘the politician’s syllogism’ in an episode of _Yes, Minister_. I don’t know that the _Yes, Minister_ writers originated it, but then again I don’t know that they didn’t.

    The SPD certainly did badly at the last federal election, but they did still come in second place. In recent opinion polls they have come third or fourth: that’s much worse. The difference is important. There’s an important difference between (A) the most recent French election, with the PS coming fifth; the most recent Dutch election, with the PvdA coming seventh; the five most recent Greek elections, with PASOK coming third at best and seventh at worst; and (B) the most recent UK election, with Labour coming second; the most recent Spanish election, with the PSOE coming first; the most recent Portuguese election, with the PS coming first; the most recent Swedish election, with the SAP coming first; the most recent Austrian election, with the SPÖ coming second; the most recent Danish election, with the Social-democrats coming first (and also the most recent Australian election, with the ALP coming second). Their actual result in the last election would have the SPD still in group A, while if their results at the next election match recent opinion polls, they’ll fall into group B. Why is it that in some countries parties like these are maintaining their position in the system, relative to other parties, while in other countries they are failing to do so?

    Also, referring back to an earlier discussion, I think it’s interesting to note that if the opinion polls are to be believed the FDP, acting as if it’s not a responsibility of political parties to ensure a government is formed, doesn’t seem to have alienated their support base in the same way as the SPD, acting as if it is their responsibility.

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    1. Yes, good question. I’m inclined to think there’s no very deep cause, but that it’s largely a matter of chance as to whether a centre-left party that’s doing badly happens to have a rival ready and able to pounce (Macron in France, Syriza in Greece), sending it into a downward spiral, or whether it can hold its relative place in the system while still doing badly (Germany, Austria).

      Re the FDP: true, but at least part of that is presumably due to the fact that the SPD was there to pick up the slack. If that hadn’t been the case, and the FDP’s refusal to enter a coalition had led to fresh elections, I expect they would have suffered as a result.

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  2. ‘Re the FDP: true, but at least part of that is presumably due to the fact that the SPD was there to pick up the slack. If that hadn’t been the case, and the FDP’s refusal to enter a coalition had led to fresh elections, I expect they would have suffered as a result.’

    By that logic, if the SPD had moved quickly to enter coalition negotiations with the CDU _first_, getting in ther before the FDP, and then, after a round of negotiations, announced that they couldn’t reach agreement on terms, they could have left the FDP holding the baby and obliged to agree coalition terms with the CDU and the Greens for want of any remaining alternative — and if they’d been able to pull off that manoeuvre, it would have have put them in a better strategic position than the one they now find themselves in. That doesn’t clearly support a conclusion that as a matter of principle parties have an obligation to ensure that a government is formed.

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