Can the British left learn anything from the German SPD?

Although Germany is unlikely to slide into the 'red column' of Europe on Sunday night, there are still reasons for this election to be of more than passing interest to the British left.

Ed Turner is Lecturer in Politics, specialising in Germany, at the Aston Centre for Europe, and is also Deputy Leader of Oxford City Council

While articles about the lessons Labour should learn from the US Democrats were ten-a-penny even before the arrival of Barack Obama, on the face of it, it’s been a while since useful tips have been picked up from the German Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD for short.

This may not be entirely fair – in particular, the brilliance of Gerhard Schröder’s 2002 and 2005 election campaigns was instructive, both times redefining the political territory to his party’s advantage. In 2002, Schröder resolutely declined to talk about Germany’s faltering economy, instead focusing upon his opposition to the Iraq war and the response to flooding in eastern Germany – both issues on which public opinion was firmly on his side.

In 2005, having called an election in the most unpromising circumstances, he very nearly won again after casting his opponents as neo-liberal throwbacks (quite some achievement for the self-styled Genosse der Bosse – comrade of the bosses).  Schröder showed the value of fighting election campaigns on your own terms, not those of your opponents.

This election, however, looks rather less promising. Although the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, has fought a tenacious campaign, it looks unlikely to trouble chancellor Merkel’s grip on government (though there’s an outside chance of the SPD becoming a junior coalition partner – a distinctly poisoned chalice, which led to its miserable 2009 result).

Steinbrück has made a few mistakes too – when I asked a group of Social Democrats for any advice they could offer the British, I was told to avoid having our leader pose for a magazine raising his middle finger at the camera (an ill-advised Steinbrück wheeze in an interview to be answered by mime alone!).

His comments on how the chancellor was underpaid, and how no decent bottle of wine was to be had for less than 5 euro, were also not well-judged.

We shouldn’t be too harsh on Steinbrück, though – even a born-again Willy Brandt would struggle against Angela Merkel at a time when Germany’s economy is performing so much better than those of its neighbours, and the country has assumed de facto leadership in Europe.

And yet, there probably are some lessons we can take from the SPD.  Three of the topics in its campaign have found some resonance.

First, there’s been a strong focus upon the precarious employment with which a growing section of the labour market is confronted. As millions of Germans grapple with low wages (often in jobs with earnings set just below the level at which social insurance contributions would be required) and insecure employment, the SPD’s demand for a national minimum wage commands strong popular support.

Although a decent number of Germans are still in reasonably well-paid jobs with secure pensions (and are more likely to vote than their more marginalised counterparts), this topic is unlikely to go away, either in Germany or elsewhere. Social democrats desperately need, in Europe and beyond, to think about ways in which greater security can be offered to workers when economic forces, as well as the political right, are pushing in the other direction.

Secondly, on a theme also related to financial insecurity, the SPD has been campaigning on restricting rent increases – and chancellor Merkel herself felt moved to jump on the bandwagon after it gained popular support. There are some obvious parallels in the UK.

Thirdly, the SPD campaigned for an expansion of childcare (admittedly jumping on a bandwagon already being driven by chancellor Merkel, after some expansion during the period of the last grand coalition) – another issue with obvious traction in the UK.

There are some interesting points in the SPD’s manifesto on European policy, too. The proposal that, in addition to restrictions on budget deficits, minimum levels of social and education expenditure should be required, presents an elegant and logical flip-side to restrictions on budget deficits – albeit one hardly likely to find unanimous agreement amongst the EU’s member states.

But here, too, a conversation with German Social Democrats about ways of rekindling the project of social Europe would seem worthwhile, not least because some progressive pro-European perspective would surely be necessary if the hearts and minds of progressive British voters were to be won in any future referendum.

Finally, there has been a back-handed compliment delivered by the SPD to Labour, which has started tapping on residents’ doors on a widespread scale for the first time (a practice which the German press seem to believe was invented by Barack Obama). Campaigners cannot, however, ask directly about people’s voting intentions – cultural barriers are just too strong.

So although Germany is unlikely to slide into the ‘red column’ of Europe on Sunday night, there are still reasons for this election to be of more than passing interest to the British left.

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