Germany’s Social Democrats Are Moving Left. Will it Save the Party?

December 5, 2019

Germany's SPD followed the example of Britain's Labour party, electing new left-wing leadership after years of decline. Steve Hudson, an activist in both parties, discusses whether this move can still save the SPD.

Germany's SPD followed the example of Britain's Labour party, electing new left-wing leadership after years of decline. Steve Hudson, an activist in both parties, discusses whether this move can still save the SPD.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.

Germany’s oldest political party, the Social Democratic Party or SPD, made an important shift towards the left last weekend. In a national membership vote, party members narrowly elected Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, who represent the party’s left wing as the SPD’s new leadership team. This was a major blow to the party’s current leadership under Olaf Scholz, who is also Germany’s finance minister and vice chancellor in the coalition government with the Christian Democrats under chancellor Angela Merkel. In the run-up to the leadership election, Esken and Walter-Borjans had said that they intend to renegotiate the SPD’s coalition agreement with the Christian Democrats.

The implication of such a renegotiation could mean a collapse of the coalition and new general elections next year. The SPD will now hold a party convention this coming Friday, which will decide on whether to follow this course of action. The SPD’s leftward shift is significant because the party, which dominated Germany’s political landscape for decades with as much as 45% of the vote at its high point, has been in free fall recently, getting 20.5% of the vote in the 2017 general election. A recent opinion poll even shows that the party is now at a mere 14%, well below the 22% for the Green Party, and about the same as the far right party Alternative for Germany. What does all of this mean for Europe’s largest country?

Joining me to discuss the implications of the SPD’s leftward shift is Steve Hudson. He’s a member of Britain’s Labor Party, where he coordinates Momentum International. Also, he is chair of the grassroots NoGroKo campaign within the SPD, which is opposed to Germany’s grand coalition of SPD and Christian Democrats. Thanks for joining us today, Steve.

STEVE HUDSON: Hi.

GREG WILPERT: You recently wrote an article for the publication, Tribune, in which you draw parallels between the election of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken to the leadership of the SPD, and you compare that to the election of Jeremy Corbin as the leader of the Labor Party in Britain. Talk about the similarity and differences between the two changes in leadership.

STEVE HUDSON: There are two fundamental similarities, which is firstly that both parties were in a deep crisis and secondly, Labor had lost yet another election. The SPD has been essentially on a downward spiral since 1998 and secondly, that they both introduced a one-member, one-boat, sort of direct democratic election for the leadership, which hadn’t been the case before. Before in Labor, there’d been a weird sort of electoral college between the unions and the MPs, the members of parliament, and party members in the SPD. It intended to be just a backroom deal that was sort of sorted out between the departing leader and the SPD establishment. And that had meant that, for years, they’d never been able to rid themselves of their deep problem.

The SPD in government, when it last led a government under Gerhard Schroder in the early 2000s from ’98 to 2005, passed this program called Agenda 2010, which was a massive program of cuts of welfare and benefits and employment security, and massive cuts in taxes for the richest, and a huge part of the SPD electorate felt betrayed. They’ve never shaken that off because they’ve always kind of kept on people as leaders who were part of that decision or who have supported that decision. Now, by electing, by opening the election up to the grassroots members who’ve chosen a very different team, there is finally the chance to break with all those mistakes of the past.

GREG WILPERT: As the chair of the NoGroKo movement within the SPD, you have been campaigning against the grand coalition between the SPD­ and the Christian Democrats. The magazine Der Spiegel reports that there will be no membership vote on this coalition agreement, which originally, apparently there was some suggestion that there might be a membership vote on it. Now instead, the new leadership is supposed to enter into talks with the Christian Democrats, according to a preliminary draft of the proposal, to discuss the raising the minimum wage, introducing public investment plan and curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Do you think that the CDU, the Christian Democrats, will agree to this and, if not, do you think this would mean an end to the coalition?

STEVE HUDSON: If they didn’t agree, then it would be the end of the coalition. The coalition contract, so-called, was negotiated with, part of it was that actually after two years of the four-year coalition, there would be a moment to sort of look at it, how it’s going and whether it’s reacting to current events. What we’ve seen in the meantime, one of the hugest things in Germany, are the climate strikes. We had, in September, 1.4 million Germans on the street, led especially by schoolkids and young people, an incredible display of power from below. They’re referring to the United Nations, saying we have to start now. We have to begin to move because otherwise it will simply be too late. At the same time, there’s a huge crisis of social inequality. Germany is a rich country and yet, there are millions of kids growing up in poverty, partly because of these reforms that the SPD passed so many years ago.

So things like raising the minimum wage are essential. Now, the CDU is a conservative party and also lobbyists and the whole neoliberal agenda; it’s extremely unlikely to agree to these things. The trouble is that Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, the new leaders of the party, are in a difficult position. They have the membership behind them right to the bottom. They’re there at the top, but kind of everything in between and all the hierarchies and structures of the SPD is, in general with a few exceptions, more conservative, more from the right and unwilling to pass all of these things. With this national party conference coming up this weekend, there’s a huge sort of tactical question of how they go about this, but certainly, the expectations from us below are that we need to attack these things, we need to start dealing with them right now. In my opinion, it would be very sad if we don’t. Obviously, their problem is, just tactically, how do they go about it when so much of the party hierarchy and apparatus is probably dead against.

GREG WILPERT: Looking at the most recent opinion poll results that were published in, actually also in Das Regel, it does not look very good, though, for progressive politics in Germany. If you add the results of the SPD, the left party and the Greens, they come to about 44% of the vote, at least according to the most recent poll, which basically makes a coalition government of these parties relatively unlikely. Meanwhile, the Christian Democrats, the liberal Democrats and the right wing EFD add up to 48%. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they would actually form a coalition with each other since they, as far as I know, they’ve all pretty much said that that’s out of the question. Why are progressive forces lagging in Germany at the moment, and do you think that they have a chance to do better with a new general election with this new leadership if it were to come to an election?

STEVE HUDSON: The left in general in Germany has had this problem that it’s been fragmented, and for a hundred years people have been criticizing the SPD. They’ve usually had very good reason to criticize the SPD. And they’ve moved out and formed new parties, whether it was like the Communist Party in sort of the teens and the twenties, or Independent Social Democrats and the Greens and Die Linke Party in Germany who are still today an active party, none of these parties have ever really been able to claim a social majority. The Greens are currently very strong in the polls in the 20s, while for them very strong, but with the death of the SPD, what we’ve seen is the loss of the classic working class vote that is essential. Many of these people are slowly going over to the AFD. The AFD are essentially a very right wing nationalist or authoritarian anti-immigrant party.

We need to create a coalition of all these parties but, especially bringing in these millions of people who are non-voters, to create a social majority again. We had a time during the 2017 election, there was a candidate called Martin Schultz that hadn’t been involved in these terrible Agenda 2010 decisions, actually criticized it on the campaign trail. When he said that, the SPD’s ratings just suddenly shot through the roof. There was this great thing called the Schultz hype and then crowds were suddenly turning out to cheer an SPD politician, of a party that is generally perceived as extremely boring and extremely uncharismatic because it finally signified change. If the SPD can finally cast off these terrible mistakes of the past and promise to be there for working people, there is a huge reservoir of goodwill. This entrenched frustration with the SPD is simply that it hasn’t been fulfilling, it hasn’t been doing what it says on the tin. It’s there to fight for the people at the bottom of society and the perception for so long was that, actually, it was in the pocket of the lobbyists and working for the people at the top of society.

If we can get that energy back, there are so many millions of people who’ve given up on voting and given up on democracy, who have given up on the SPD, then we can pull them back. Your party, especially maybe for middle class intellectuals in big cities, they can say, oh, I could choose this or choose that because we have a wide variety of parties in Germany. For many, many people from, especially from working class backgrounds, loyalty is a huge virtue. It’s like your football team. You don’t suddenly start changing just because your football team is playing really badly. What you do is you stop going to the games. We need to get people to start coming back to the games. I think when people see their party, they’re sort of intrinsic party, is back on the right track and is actually fighting for them, and that people at the bottom have power in the party, then everything is possible.

GREG WILPERT: That’s a very interesting analogy, to the ball game. I want to ask you something. As somebody who is involved in both countries, actually very actively involved in both Britain and in Germany, I’m wondering to what extent, and there’s certainly also parallels between the developments in the two countries, not only their shift to the left and the leadership, but then also what you were saying about the loss of the working class vote, which is something that is very dangerous, from what I hear with regard to the labor strongholds in Northern England, for example.

STEVE HUDSON: Yeah.

GREG WILPERT: I’m wondering, to what extent do you think that the two parties, that is the Labor Party and the SPD in Germany, are they looking, so to speak, across the channel and at each other to see what they can learn from each other with regard to future strategy? To what extent is that happening or are they completely insulated?

STEVE HUDSON: It kind of started out in 2017, after the SPD did so badly in the election and Labor did so well, the way that things changed within Labor, was the introduction of direct democracy, that as these parties go into crisis, that you need direct input from the members. We’re in a social situation now where more and more things are in crisis. People can see that their kids are going to be worse off than them, but they don’t feel they have a direct voice, they can’t influence things. That’s why direct vote is really important. We had a direct vote within the SPD last year already and it was lost, so maybe that’s why the SPD establishment thought, oh, would it be dangerous to have another one? This time we won. That one was against the grand coalition, which was lost on a two to one basis. This time we’ve won, I think, clearly because people now have had enough of the way the SPD has been going.

There are differences, however. And the Labor Party is much more plugged into the trade unions, and that is essential. Unfortunately, the trade union movement is also becoming weaker in almost every country. We are looking at each other and it’s actually why I’m currently in Britain campaigning for Labor. It is so important that we win here, because if we can win here in Britain and show that a genuine alternative, where we’re really standing up saying this is different, we can win here. Then the German SPD can say, “Look, we can turn left, you can win.” Then hopefully, Bernie will be the candidate in America. Bernie can beat Trump, so is this why we have to put everything into winning here. Unfortunately, we do have a vicious media machine aligned against us, pumping out smear and lies every day. We’re all out there every day talking to people on the doorstep and changing minds and it’s working, but it’s tough work.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, I can imagine. I think that’s a very good point about the media. We’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Steve Hudson, a writer, activist, and member of both Britain’s Labor Party and Germany’s SPD. Thanks again, Steve for having joined us today.

STEVE HUDSON: Cool. Thanks, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.