It is alleged that when she first became leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Andrea Nahles’s authority was such that she could influence journalists on whether they should eat schnitzel or beef. A year later, her authority obliterated after the party’s worst results in elections since 1887, she had stepped down.
The SPD are haemorrhaging more and more support as weeks go by. Receiving 15.8% of the vote at the elections to the European Parliament, Germany’s Social Democrats experienced their worst ever performance in an election since 1887 — in other words, since Germany became a mass democracy. It lost control of Bremen, a city it has governed for 73 years. And every week, the SDP plumb new depths in the opinion polls. One survey last week placed them on just 12%.
The SPD’s problems stem from economic reforms under Schroeder and aiding and abetting the austerity politics of the CDU right. At the beginning of 2018, the Hans-Böckler Foundation, a think-tank with close links to Germany’s trade unions, published a study which provided a new taxonomy of German voters. First there were ‘those content with things’ (die Zufriedenen), which made up around 43% of the electorate and drew its membership from the upper and middle classes; ‘those concerned’ about their jobs (die Verunischerten) by factors such as automation, globalisation and immigration, who comprised 32% and were also from the upper and middle classes; and ‘the detached’ (Enttäuschte) who were drawn from the working class and formed the remaining 25%.
The SDP, as well as the CDU/CSU, has strong backing from those content with the way things currently are. Yet as economic conditions worsen in Germany, their popularity diminishes by the week. The SDP is increasingly reviled as a party unwavering in its managerial centrism, too stubborn to admit there is a problem and too supine to offer a prescriptive programme which differentiates it from the Christian Democrat Right.
How then to stop the rot?
For the SDP, the choice is simple. Either continue to work with the CDU in a coalition government and thereby continue to haemorrhage support; or rescind its support and renew its policy platform.
It is hard to see how Nahles’ successor as leader can allow the ‘grand coalition’ (or ‘GroKo’ as it has become known in Germany) to continue to exist. In the same poll that placed the SDP on 12% last week, when asked whether the party should terminate the GroKo, 57% of those asked said they should, with only 36% opposed to the idea and 7% undecided.
Nor are SPD voters keen to see their party prop up the CDU. According to a recent YouGov poll, 58% of SPD-voters are for ending the GroKo, while only 26% are in favour of its continuation. And in the electorate more broadly, the poll found that 52% were in favour of calling fresh elections, with only 27% wishing to keep things the way they were. Only 9% of those asked said that the current coalition was their preferred configuration of coalition parties.
Remember, this is Germany we are talking about — a country which for economic and historical reasons is purported to prize political stability above anything else.
Many such as Kevin Kühnert, who stands on the left of the party, are calling for it to undergo a thorough transformation. Who is this newcomer Kevin? Described recently as the man who ‘could end the Merkel era’, Kühnert leads the SPD’s ‘Jusos’ (‘Young Socialists in the SPD’). He wants to shift the party leftward. He has recently caused a stir when he called for the collectivisation of corporations such as BMW. “The distribution of profits must be democratically controlled. That rules out a capitalist owner of this company,” Kühnert told Die Zeit weekly. “Without collectivisation, overcoming capitalism is unthinkable.”
Kühnert’s mission is to move the party away from the tired centrism of Merkevellian managerialism, and towards the radical socialist left. He vehemently opposed the SPD leadership’s decision to go into government with Merkel after the 2017 election, spearheading the “NoGroKo” campaign at the time. For Kühnert, opposition is no less than an opportunity for policy reorientation leftward and grassroots renewal. “Saying no [to the grand coalition] does not mean ‘the end of the SDP’”, he told a party conference last year. “It would be the beginning of a new story.”
Remarkably for a country often held up as a paragon of political stability, the political winds are blowing in the direction of change in Germany. Both of the “people’s parties” (Volksparteien) are fragmenting and experiencing intense internal ideological contestation. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s heir to the CDU throne, is probably wondering whether she will even be the party’s candidate for chancellor in 2021, as she attempts to keep at bay the ghoulish figures of the fringe right such as Friedrich Merz. Meanwhile, public opinion has shifted decisively in favour of the Greens, who have emerged as one of the most popular parties, even overtaking the CDU in one poll.
Kühnert recognises that the SDP must come to embody change if the party wants to remain relevant. Drawing inspiration from Corbyn’s successes in shifting the British Labour Party and the mainstream leftward, Momentum employees were sent to Berlin last year to help Kühnert’s Jusos oppose the grand coalition.
One of the great ironies of Brexit has been that Britain looks more and more European in its politics with the increased frequency of coalition governments and confidence-and-supply agreements. Likewise, Germany has come to increasingly mirror British politics as its establishment centre-left party returns to its radical origins on the Left.
Many have come around to Kühnert’s thinking that the party must forge alliances with parties on the left. Malu Dreyer, one of three caretaker leaders of the SPD, has raised the possibility of a leftist alliance with Die Linke (Left Party) and the Greens. “We need other constellations to boost our credibility. One option is of course a coalition of the SPD, Greens and Left,” she told Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. Indeed, such is Kevin’s influence recently, Der Spiegel weekly ran a front-page cover simply asking ‘Is Kevin Coming Now? Why the SDP and the GroKo should fear the Jusos boss.’
The SDP elect their new leader on 24th June. To be sure, there are few obvious candidates from the establishment side of the party. However, while Kevin has the radical credentials and the vision to take the party in a new direction, he lacks a career outside politics with which to establish credibility as an outsider representing subaltern interests, as opposed to a thoroughbred party functionary. Whoever the party chooses, they will have to break with the Merkevellian past.