Progress | Centre-left Labour politics
SPD leader Angela Merkel waves from a stage

The SPD: a people’s party without people

As the German parliamentarians prepare to go back after the summer holidays, the social democrat (SPD) members of parliament are facing an uphill climb, argues Penny Bochum

It’s been a difficult summer for the SPD.

Over the last few months they’ve struggled to reach 18 per cent in the opinion polls and are now fighting off challenges, not only from the far right populists the Alternative for Germany (AfD), who are polling at around 16 per cent, but also from the Green Party, which has experienced a surge in the polls to around 15 per cent.

The situation in the east of Germany is even worse. Recent polls found that the AfD are in second place in three eastern states, Saxony, Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt. In Saxony (where there have been anti-immigrant street protests and violence in the town of Chemnitz), the SPD has fallen to 11 per cent, and in Thuringia to 10 per cent.

Before parliament rose for the summer, the SPD published a report, commissioned after the September 2017 election by departing leader Martin Schulz, which explored the reasons for the party’s defeat. ‘Learning from Mistakes’ was brutal in its relentlessly honest assessment of the failure of the ‘people’s party without people.’

The report found that the SPD programme lacked clarity and a coherent set of concrete policies, clinging to the ‘pragmatic middle ground’. It argued that the SPD had failed to carve out an identity separate from its coalition partners in the last government, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), and failed to get any credit for policies it was responsible for, such as the minimum wage. The public did not trust the party on key election winning values such as management of the economy, leadership competence and immigration. The party’s head office was found to lack a clear responsibility structure, transparency, and creativity, and its communications were poor. The report also describes a ‘creeping decoupling’ of the central leadership and the regional and local leadership, which fuelled a pronounced mistrust of the Berlin leadership.

While the report makes a depressing read, it is part of a positive process. The renewal process, promised by leader Andrea Nahles when she was elected in April, got underway in the summer with the start of a major policy review. Party members were sent a set of consultation documents, and the aim is to include them, and the public, in a wide-ranging review. The papers, from four steering groups, will be consulted on locally first. In November there will be the first of two ‘Debate Camps’ in Berlin, which will be open to all.

There have been some policy successes from SPD ministers in the months since the coalition deal was struck with Angela Merkel’s CDU in the spring. It is hoped that these will help the party to establish a clear social democrat identity, appease the large numbers of party members who opposed going into another coalition with Merkel, and head off rebellion in the parliamentary party.

Employment minister Hubertus Heil has secured pension reforms (which had been agreed in the coalition deal). The reforms aim to stabilise pensions against inflation, guaranteeing a pension level of 48 per cent of previous income until 2025, and that employee contributions should not rise above 20 per cent. In August, Olaf Scholz, vice-chancellor and finance minister, who is tipped by many to be a possible chancellor candidate in the 2021 election, went a step further and announced that he would push for this arrangement to be extended to 2040. This has not been agreed with Merkel, but Scholz has announced his intention of making it a key battleground. He has argued that pension reforms are part of a package of measures which will help avoid a Trump in Germany.

Read more: A social democrats’ Europe

Heil has also made progress with the employment reforms set out in the coalition agreement, which were a key part of the SPD election manifesto.  A draft law in June agreed that employees will have the right to time-limited part-time employment. In other words, after going into part-time work (for example, for training or childcare reasons), employees will have the right to go back into full-time employment. Heil also promised in June that the minimum wage would be raised significantly, and that short-term contracts will be restricted, avoiding chains of short-term contracts for employees.

Tackling the still enormously controversial issue of the Hartz IV social security reforms, which drove a wedge through the party under Gerhard Schröder, leader Andrea Nahles has promised to abolish sanctions for young people, which she argues are counterproductive. The party leadership, however, has resisted pressure to review the Hartz-IV reforms in general, much to the dismay of the left.

The SPD failed to capitalise on its achievements in the last coalition. The party knows, as the post-election defeat analysis makes clear, that it must learn from its mistakes. It is crucial now that it not only manages to push through the policies set out in the coalition agreement, but also that a promised overhaul of party headquarters helps it fill the ‘enormous communications hole’ identified in ‘Learning from Mistakes’, so that it manages to convey its successes to the electorate.


Penny Bochum is a writer for Progress. She tweets @Penny Bochum.


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