I arrived in Berlin last week to volunteer for the SPD’s election campaign expecting two things. The first was that the campaign would, by and large, mirror my experience of election canvassing in the UK. Armed with our trusty voter identification records, we would remind those who had indicated that they would vote for the SPD to go and vote on 22 September, and try to win over those who were still unsure. There would be telephone canvassing, and maybe the odd street stall, but the focus would be on face-to-face interactions.
My second expectation was acute voter apathy – this election has been universally panned as tedious. The ‘TV-Duel’ between Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück had hardly set my pulse racing, and ‘Mutti’ seemed to have it all wrapped up.
Both expectations were to a degree misplaced.
Door-to-door canvassing does of course form an important part of the campaign in Germany. But my German comrade Manfred seemed baffled when I questioned why we weren’t asking for voting intentions, or even recording which doors we had visited. ‘That would be somewhat…intrusive’ he finally replied.
Manfred was, however, proving to be a hit, much more so than my solemn offerings of information on Steinbrück’s ‘100 day programme.’ For Manfred was kitted out with what every canvasser in Germany really needs: freebies. Balloons for the kids, shopping trolley tokens for the more advanced in age; and condoms, luminous bracelets and bottle openers for the crowd attending the SPD’s Monday ‘club night.’ The condoms were red, of course, with the instruction to ‘love who you like!’ on one side, and some choice quotations from some of the more homophobic of Germany’s conservative politicians on the other.
However uninspiring the candidates may appear, we met a lot of voters seriously engaged with certain key issues. The SPD has had some success in ensuring that topics such as the minimum wage, exploitation of ‘temporary workers’, and discrepancies between pensions in East and West Germany are on the agenda. I attended a debate between candidates and pensioners in the east of Berlin expecting a muted discussion of pension provision, only to find that the meeting ended in chaos when the CDU candidate, harangued on all sides, lost his cool and questioned whether one of his most vocal critics had been a member of the SED, East Germany’s communist ruling party before the wall came down.
The CDU’s strategy is clear: ensure that Germans are confronted wherever they go by placards of Merkel and slogans as general and as meaningless as possible: ‘Successful together’ and ‘We’re voting for confidence’ are two favourites. Steinbrück has found it difficult to challenge this image of security and continuity, but Merkel’s often comical platitudes have not gone unnoticed. On Germany’s possible complicity in NSA surveillance she commented that ‘the internet is new ground for us all’ – hardly convincing in a country so preoccupied with data protection.
The composition of Germany’s next government is far from certain. The FDP, Merkel’s coalition partners nationally, crashed out in the Bavarian elections last weekend, and could well fail to get five per cent nationally on Sunday. This would force Merkel to try to form a grand coalition with the SPD in a repeat of the 2005-2009 government. The SPD itself, having ruled out working with Die Linke, has to hope that the Greens recover their dwindling vote if Steinbrück is to become chancellor. This seems unlikely, as the Greens have had a nightmarish few weeks (their call for compulsory meat-free Thursdays in public canteens didn’t quite manage to fully win over the German electorate).
In some ways Ed Miliband’s challenge in 2015 does resemble Steinbrück’s. Of course, David Cameron doesn’t have anywhere near the personal popularity ratings that Merkel enjoys, but both are incumbents happy to gloss over serious social problems, and both are reliant to some degree on unreliable coalition partners. Whether we’ll be handing out red condoms in two years’ time is quite another matter – some things only really work in Berlin.
Jack Tunmore is John Mann MP’s parliamentary assistant
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