| 10 mins read
Sometimes the (ir-)relevance of ‘academic’ articles rises and falls before their ultimate publication. This is the case with my paper on German social democracy in the current edition of Political Quarterly, written in December of last year. Briefly, my main thesis is that a social democratic party turned neoliberal could not, cannot and will not win elections run under an electoral system of proportional representation – as is the case in Germany. My thesis is neither new nor in any way original. If you do everything you can to demobilize your (former) core voters, by adopting socio-economic policies that are directly opposed to their material interests – such as cutting taxes for high earners, removing social protection and shifting the tax base away from progressive to regressive taxes, as was all done during the red-green coalition government led by the former German SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder between 1998 and 2005 – you will simply destroy your political support base.
Since the Schröder years, half of former SPD voters – around 10 million people altogether – have drifted away. The probably largest group has opted out from the political process and no longer votes in elections (differences in electoral participation between residential areas with lower and higher socio-economic status are dramatically high in Germany). Other former SPD voters have turned to the CDU/CSU (why vote for the copy of a neoliberal party if you can vote for the original?), the Left Party or the right-wing populists of the AfD. Yet losing one’s traditional voters has not, in fact, meant that new centrist voters would have turned to the SPD to compensate for the losses – as Blairites used to claim. In electoral terms, the SPD has virtually nothing to show for its ‘modernization’ during the Schröder years. Since the German proportional electoral system allows voters a greater degree of choice when compared with British majority voting, the SPD cannot take its traditional voters for granted and must work hard to attract new ones. In earlier times, the core of the social democratic message used to be the commitment to ‘social justice’. Today, the SPD can no longer explain to voters from disadvantaged milieus why they should vote social democratic, and the party appears to stand for nothing much in particular.
In an oblique way, the SPD has recently tried addressing its poor electoral track record in the federal elections of 2005, 2009 and 2013. First, the SPD has engaged in a major shuffling of its leadership personnel. The former SPD foreign minister, Frank Steinmeier, has become the German president (a largely ceremonial role), and the former SPD chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, has taken Steinmeier’s position in the current grand coalition government in which the SPD acts as junior partner of Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU. This prepared the stage for the re-entry of Martin Schulz, the former chairman of the European Parliament, into German domestic politics. On 24 January 2017, he was announced to be the candidate for chancellor of the SPD and, shortly afterwards, was also elected as the new SPD leader with the North Korean-style electoral support of 100 per cent of the party delegates.
To the surprise of most observers, including this writer, Schulz quickly gained political momentum: the SPD experienced the virtually first sustained upturn in opinion polls since the Schröder years and, at one point, Schulz matched Merkel’s popularity figures. This development became known as ‘Schulzmania’ in the media and on Twitter. It appeared to hand the SPD a real fighting chance to defeat Merkel in the polls in September 2017.
Why did ‘Schulzmania’ occur? From my point of view, candidate Schulz did something right: he appealed to what German sociologists usually describe as the ‘traditional employee milieus’ in German society (in his own words the ‘people who keep things moving’), and he clearly stated that it was unjust that people losing their jobs for reasons beyond their control also lose their rights in the German social security system after a single year of unemployment benefits. He suggested that people who had paid into the social insurance system all their life should be treated better, and that re-training of the unemployed for qualified jobs, rather than forcing them into poor quality employment, must be a right that the SPD should honour. In fact, his words had a very strong impact and there was a short-lived wave of enthusiasm welcoming the candidate as the saviour that the SPD had been waiting for all along.
As was to be expected, the counteroffensive of the mainstream media – mostly aligned with the conservatives – pushed the opposite story line. They suggested that the Schröder-SPD’s welfare retrenchment and deregulation of the labour market, mostly between 2003 and 2005, had been a ‘success’ and that Schulz was riding the dead horse of social justice. To quote two typical voices, one journalist suggested that ‘efforts to regain the insecure clientele at the margins of society are so last season. After three [SPD] defeats in regional elections, Martin Schulz wants to avoid more than ever to scare the centrist electorate with expensive initiatives’ (Spiegel, 20 May 2017). In the same spirit, an opinion pollster suggested that ‘it is the cardinal mistake of Schulz to put the topic of ‘justice’ so much at the centre of his campaign’ (Stern, 21 May 2017).
Yet if these observers could really be right, how could we possibly take account of ‘Schulzmania’ in the first place? The basic issue of whether or not labour market deregulation and welfare retrenchment count as a ‘success’ is of course determined by the politics of class: it certainly was highly successful from the point of view of employers and the well-off. Yet it was a major blow from the point of view of employees fearing for the security of their jobs and those depending on welfare state solidarity.
Overall, the SPD must make an effort to clarify its electoral message. Does the party continue to advocate for neoliberalism-lite, or is it going to demand major policy change in favour of the socially disadvantaged? Most opinion pollsters claim that ‘social justice’ is not a winning topic in the forthcoming election, suggesting that other issues such as the refugee crisis, domestic security, and health and pension policies are more significant. Yet opinion pollsters frame such issues too narrowly: each of the ‘other’ major issues has a strong social justice component. A weak and deregulated state is not going to be able to solve any of the problems facing the German public at present. Thus, Schulz would be well-advised to stay ‘on message’ and to avoid blurring his initial focus on social justice. The current (late May 2017) main SPD talking point – namely reorganizing health insurance by creating a more universal system – is too obscure and has already been around in SPD announcements for many years. It is certainly not a topic that is going to solve the SPD’s search for a clear programmatic message. Schulz must reassert his position or face a lengthy and painful decline as a candidate until election day on 22 September.
Let us be honest: even the best electoral strategy would in all likelihood not allow for a left-of-centre government in Germany later this year. The current age is not a social democratic one, and electoral failure on the part of the SPD is ultimately due to difficulties shared by all progressive parties in offering convincing alternatives to neoliberal retrenchment and austerity. The SPD, the Greens and the Left Party all struggle with their own particular mobilization problems in elections, and they have collectively failed to create a mood in favour of political change in Germany. Yet this does not change the fact that the SPD and candidate Schulz really must try harder to run an election campaign with a coherent message. This would at least allow re-gaining some of the lost electoral ground.