In Germany, something else is happening

11:12 am - September 8th 2008

by Sunder Katwala    

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The long running party leadership issue has finally been resolved, with beleaguered Social Democratic party leader Kurt Beck acknowledging that he will not lead the party in a General Election next year. SPD leaders have anointed Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the party’s Chancellor-candidate to take on Angela Merkel, through a coronation rather than a contest.

The move was announced at a party meeting on Sunday at Lake Schwielowsee to agree the election platform.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier was one of the key architects of the Gerhard Schroeder Agenda 2010 reforms. He is currently Deputy Chancellor and Foreign Minister. On the centre-right of the party, he has the respect and stature to be a unity candidate.

In some ways, the challenges for the German Social Democrats parallel those for Labour in Britain.

In others, they are more difficult still. The presence of Oskar Lafontaine’s Linkspartei – polling around 15% – presents an oppositionist challenge with significant appeal to working-class voters, despite being very short on constructive solutions. The Greens are also an established national force. If the majority of voters are likely to vote for centre-left and left, the Social Democrats face a major challenge to secure 30% of the vote.

A Steinmeier leadership rules out any coalition with the Lafontaine left. But it is difficult to see how that could have worked in government over any sustained period, and the fear of a centre-left-left coalition government could have lost voters in the centre. One disadvantage for the SPD is that the Liberal (FDP) party is more centre-right than centre-left, making a ‘traffic lights’ coalition more difficult. The FDP would like a return to power after more than a decade out of office, unlike the LibDems in Britain (whose majority preference is quite probably to be uncoalitionable).

Distinguishing the centre-left from the centre-right is harder than in Britain. There is a grand coalition, and Angela Merkel can offer rather more solid evidence than David Cameron to substantiate her claim to be a centrist. She has not found it difficult to work with the Social Democrats. (We have almost no Christian Democrats in Britain: the Chris Patten wing of the Tory party having been organised out in parliamentary selections over the last decade by a generation which is much more Eurosceptic than many people notice). The CDU will run a campaign centred on Merkel as a candidate.

There is pressure from the left of the SPD for the party to distance itself from the employment reform agenda of Gerhard Schroeder. The new leadership’s analysis will be that the party should not concede that territory to their coalition partners – but that a public case for them needs to be made in social democratic terms.

One of the great missed opportunities for the British Labour party was to fail to emulate the great revisionist shift which the German Social Democrats made at Bad Godesberg in the 1950s. A decade ago, New Labour had a tendency to evangelise and preach that it had all of the answers. it makes more sense for the parties of the centre-left to learn from the common challenges they face in different circumstances. In Britain, we spend a lot of time looking across the Atlantic – but we should pay more attention to what is happening on the other side of the channel too.

Cross-posted from Next Left

New York Times: Without Primaries or Caucuses, Campaign for German Chancellor Begins

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Labour party ,Realpolitik ,Westminster

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Reader comments

I think German politics is fascinating, but I’m not sure that it offers many insights for the development of our own electoral battlefield, rather I think the reverse is truer.

Pluralistic democratic politics was constitutionally hardwired into the three traditional parties as a basis for securing the peace of the federal republic, whereas in this country the perpetual evolution of party structures means that there remains a representative body of opinion on both right and left within Labour and the Conservatives which tends to revert to dogma.

It is interesting that the SPD and Labour leadership changes have both resisted democratic debates about their direction in order to maintain the false impression of party unity for presentations sake – which just goes to show how out of touch they are with ordinary voters, even if in so doing they think they have enhanced their claims to be in touch with the issues that matter.

But just as the weakness of Labour’s democratic argument is undermining its credibility to govern, so too the SPD’s credibility is being undermined by the consensual nature of the German system and it’s participation in the grand coalition.

In both Britain and Germany gaps are opening up amidst the political spectrum and providing opportunities for new political forces: where Germany is experiencing growth of newly centralised parties (first the Gruene/Buendnis90 grouping and now the new ‘Left’ party) Britain is seeing growth of fringe groups (among them regional nationalists, isolated environmentalists and independents). I think this divergent trend is partly a similar if gradual response to the different electoral systems (German consensualism and PR compared to British oppositionalism and FPTP) and partly a form of convergence across the continent as European political debates are distilled in Brussels and migrate out to individual member state level.

What I do find amusing about the coalescence (I won’t say rise because they’ve already hit their ceiling) of the ‘Left’ party is how it harks back to a period in the past when simplistic definitions of left, right and centre were ascribed to parties based on a basic ideological categorisation.

But though things might have been simpler then when you knew who you were fighting against, I’d argue it is better not to be fighting on the streets over ideology – I’d rather we sat down and talked about practical matters of substance.

I thought that revising clause four was Labour’s Bad Godesberg moment. I suppose it had less significance because prior to that the SPD still clung to its Kautskyite tradition of economic determinism and the fact that East Germany was just next door.

Where I think Labour really missed an opportunity was to bring the Liberals into its first administration and fulfil its pledge to call a referendum on PR.

Of course if there were PR then the prospects of Labour in opposition after the next election would probably be similar to that of the SPD now with a credible Green party and some kind of Scargilite/Gallowayite/SWPite party to its left and (possibly) the Blairites splitting off to the right.

Good point about the Euroscepticism of the Tories going unnoticed. I don’t understand why Labour do not make more of that – or about the economic benefits of joining the Euro!

I think it’s refreshing that at last someone has come out and hinted that maybe in Europe too there are lessons and ideas to be learnt as well as looking to the States. At Compass Youth we go out and talk to comrades in other countries to get a flavour of the debates going on there through our campaign exchanges, but also young people living in London who come from across Europe. They don’t only experience the impact of our policies but can compare these with what’s going on back in their countries. This is why we organised local debates to input into the manifesto consultation of the Party of European Socialists (the best example I’ve seen of participative input). That was a great way to connect face to face debates in London with online discussions on their website.

Our friends across the channel were surprised (even relieved) at the diversity of opinions that were coming out of the debates here. The PES now have an amazing democratic argument for their manifesto in deep contrast to Labour’s as Thomas puts well.

The conversations are happening regardless of whether New Labour are paying any attention (and let’s not generalise, David Lammy is trying to break out of this mould), but if they realised the amount of energy that people are prepared to put into meaningful participation (and I don’t mean fighting on the streets for ideology!), they might change they way they treat us!

4. Sunder Katwala

Thanks for comments. Thomas’ is an incisive and well argued analysis. I have an instinctive (rather British) dislike of the grand coalition for anything other than short-term or emergency cases. Within an already consensual politics, this is a dangerous approach in providing too little space for opposition and challenge within mainstream politics. Austria seems a case in point. The rise of the Left Party may be in part about that?

Conor – I agree about PR and coalition in ’97. Not doing it because the victory was too big was to miss the point that these were the conditions in which that was possible: Labour and the LibDems can cooperate effectively only from positions of mutual strength, but it mostly appeals in desperation at the nadir.

I think the answer (New Labour and Bad Godesberg) is yes and no. I did not make the point very clearly: I was suggesting that the great missed opportunity was not to do it in the 1950s. Having never been Marxist (owing more to methodism and all that) and always rather pragmatic did mean there was perhaps less of an imperative. But it meant that Labourist suspicion of ideas and values was too dominant.

That New Labour was in that tradition was the social democratic case for New Labour in the 1990s. I think that was true – but also perhaps only a half truth. David Lipsey has said that Labour was a project in ‘negative revisionism’: it was certainly clearer about what to ditch and had a rather catch-all positive argument. (You can’t renew a project which is defined primarily negative terms: not being Old Labour is easy, but it isn’t enough). The social democratic revisionist case was clear: not Marxism, not nationalisation but FOR the (realistic, gradual but ideological) case for greater equality.
(As Crosland once wrote, the centre must realise we are ideologues too) That has been one of the strands in New Labour; not often the dominant one. (This was a pale social democracy in the shadow of the 1992 defeat, Thatcherism, etc, but was also perhaps the pathway to a more assertive social democracy). My view is that we have been winning this argument inside the party (for what that is worth), and I don’t really buy this ‘battle of the factions’ argument of uber-Blairism versus a Left Party style left, because I think they are both pretty small groups.

Noel – thanks for the comment. We need more left and right at the European level. But its a long-term thing. The efforts for the PES to open up are a good step, especially if there is a response. I am not sure about the claim to democratic legitimacy. Its a very long haul? How many members of Labour in Britain (especially) or of the French PS or German SPD even yet know that the PES exists, despite the outreach efforts to date.

Thanks Sunder, I remember being quite inspired by that speech when Blair said that the 20th century had been marred by the split in the left between Labour and the LibDems and that the historic task was to unite them. It had all the Old Labourites jumping up and down in tribal fury, but I wish that Blair had followed through it (I can’t actually remember what happened on it).

My memory of the debates in the mid-1990s – from when I worked at Liberty – was that there were some in the Labour leadership who saw the civil rights agenda as fitting in with the modernisation project while other saw ‘tough on crime’ as being a good way to outflank the Tories. Obviously the latter tendency became increasingly ascendant once Labour was in government and for me the last step away from that was the 42 days debate. Anthony Barnett has probably got a much more detailed take on the whole thing.

Does the Socialist International still exist by the way?

Most members of centre left political parties do know of the PES and even within the French PS where Europe is the elephant in the room after the 2005 referendum on the treaty which almost split the party. At the same time, no-one’s ever fallen in love with an institution – even the PES – and its demogratic legitimacy obviously cannot be measured solely on a single exercise.

Where it really means something is for young activists who really mobilised for the manifesto consultation because it spoke their language and enabled them to express themselves in a way that was open and participative, but much more importantly connected them to others in different countries.

In a globalised world, it makes so much sense to confront our perceptions with other people rather than narrow the debate to whether you’re a Brownite/Blairite, a Beckite/Steinmeirite. And not only between politicos but also with other social activists like those involved in culture, music for film, as we’ve found

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