Whatever happened to Martin Schulz?

The SPD leader’s rise in the German polls gave hope to the chance of a revival for social democracy across Europe. So what happened? William Bain takes a look

A veteran parliamentarian takes over the leadership of the main centre-left party, and with a message of hope and change oversees a poll boost of nearly 10 per cent to edge the centre-left closer to heading the next government. It could be a description of what has just happened in the United Kingdom’s general election, but in the early months of 2017, it was a phenomenon known as the ‘Schulz-effekt’ that electrified German politics, and gave hope to the centre-left across Europe.

Martin Schulz was the outsider candidate, winning support from anti-establishment voters. A member of the European parliament for 23 years, latterly the European parliament’s president, meant that he did not serve in the domestic Schroeder-led red/Green German federal coalitions from 1998-2005, nor in the Social Democratic party’s two stints as the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union’s junior partner in the Merkel-led grand coalitions of the last 12 years. He was elected chairman of the SPD in succession to Sigmar Gabriel, and was appointed the party’s kanzlerkandidat (chancellor candidate) for the federal elections last September. Within weeks he took the SPD from polling in the low 20s to the low to mid-30s – neck and neck with the CDU/CSU in most polls, and even ahead in some. With Angela Merkel 12 years into her Chancellorship, and the SPD unequivocally standing as the party of social justice, fairness and change, CDU officials were deeply worried about their electoral prospects. Schulz distanced his party from the labour market reforms which were unpopular with some of its core voters, but did have the effect of halving German unemployment over the last decade.

With just over two months to go, the SPD needs another dose of the ‘Schulz-effekt’ if it is to make the September elections a real contest. The SPD suffered a trio of crushing electoral blows in recent months, losing the state elections in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and most significantly, in Northrhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and home to Schulz himself, where Hannolore Kraft’s government was turfed out by voters. Latest federal election polls give the CDU/CSU, known as the Union, a lead of between 11 to 16 points over the SPD. With the liberal Free Democratic party undergoing a resurgence under leader Christian Lindner and likely to re-enter the Bundestag in September, the SPD could face ejection from government altogether if the Union and FDP are able to form a new coalition, unless Schulz can take significant support from Merkel in the next eleven weeks. The Union’s campaign posters have warned already about the dangers of an unstable red/red/Green federal coalition between the SPD, leftwing Die Linke, and the Greens, which appears to be Schulz’s clearest path to the chancellory.

As a regular visitor to Berlin, the SPD’s problem can be summed up as this: in common with most other centre-left parties in Europe, its support is particularly strong among urban, city-dwelling people, but far weaker in smaller town, more conservative Germany. On those policy initiatives, such as the first federal minimum wage, introduced through the SPD’s influence over the coalition agreement, it finds it hard to claim political credit in the eyes of voters. As the post-federal election 2013 research for the party showed, voters no longer have a clear sense of what the party stands for, other than a generalised sense of justice. After Schroder, it has found it hard to build much electoral traction in the eastern states, where Die Linke and the rightwing Alternative for Germany (Afd) remain strong.

Under Merkel, the Union dominates the political centre, appropriates popular measures from the SPD’s agenda as its own, and consequently denies the SPD political space or ownership of social justice issues. The other strand of Merkel’s approach to policymaking is to avoid or defuse unnecessary conflict. Despite voting against equal marriage herself – a reminder that her political tradition is Christian democracy not liberalism – she permitted a free vote on the issue in the Bundestag, defusing an issue which could have raised in prominence in the election run-up and aftermath. Unlike Labour in Britain, the SPD trails the Union significantly among younger voters – an entire generation has grown up with Merkel as chancellor and respects her values.

One of the lessons from the detailed voter survey for the SPD from the gruesome defeat of 2013, when Merkel almost secured an absolute Bundestag majority, was that it should contest the Union on issues of identity and security as well as on social justice. From earlier this year a reversion to the themes of 2013 was apparent in its party platform and communications. This has allowed the Union to augment its appeal on issues of identity and patriotism, where it appeared vulnerable to the insurgent AfD in the wake of the absorption of 800,000 Syrian refugees a year or so ago. Striking recent Union campaign posters featuring Merkel prominently called for a stronger Germany for a stronger Europe in a way that limits potential loss of voters to the AfD to the Union’s right.

Germany does face challenges – its population is ageing and predicted to fall by 2050, just as the UK’s rises. The OECD and International Monetary Fund have called upon the country to invest more in infrastructure, and to make more of the economic freedom a current account surplus of eight per cent afford it. But with an economy which continues to motor along with strong GDP, employment and real wage growth, Merkel is able to champion the cause of full employment as her economic priority for a fourth term. Schulz will campaign on the need for the Germany chancellor to be stronger in standing up for Europe’s interests against Trump, for more fairness in the economy, and the need for radical reforms to make the Eurozone economy work better for ordinary people. Finding a gap through Merkel’s defences looks exceptionally difficult.

We should not underestimate how hard this election is for the SPD and how formidable an opponent they face. Unlike other leaders of great political longevity, she has been able to renew the Union’s policies while in government. She can defend her record, and also set out a compelling case to voters why she has the ideas and vision to lead for another four years. Theresa May was found wanting as hollow and brittle in the recent UK election campaign. Merkel, by contrast, is the very embodiment of strength and stability in leadership – standing up to Donald Trump, keeping Germany secure and its economy motoring, and prepared to consider a little more Europe but not too much more in terms of reforming Eurozone governance and banking union with Emmanuel Macron. The SPD has a range of talented future leaders, with the impressive Manuela Schwesig having recently been chosen as the minister-president of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania – the state where Merkel’s constituency is located. A strong SPD is good for the wider cause of social democracy in Europe. We should help campaign strongly for our sister party this summer to ensure it can be the best possible force for justice for Germany and for Europe.

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William Bain was the member of parliament for Glasgow North East between 2009 and 2015. He tweets at @William_Bain 

Photo: Matthias Groote

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