Forward! But where to?

By Niels Hegewisch
24 November 2017
Germany Germany
The SPD's uncertain future as a renewed party
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“The German voters are sadists,” said Jakob Augstein about the state elections in Lower Saxony. Three weeks after receiving a historically bad result in the federal elections, the voters helped the SPD achieve its best result since 1998 in a crucial state election. This marks the end of a tumultuous election year for German social democracy. At the beginning of the year, the SPD performed badly in the polls, but following the announcement of Martin Schulz’s candidacy for the chancellorship, a new-found euphoria took hold over the party and a significant part of the electorate. This was, however, quickly stifled as the SPD surprisingly lost state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia. These were early indicators of the SPD’s downward trajectory that led to record lows in the federal election. This begs the question, where does the party stand after it performed astonishingly well in the last state election of the year?

Without a doubt, the SPD’s poor performance openly displays its existential crisis. The party has been continuously in decline since the early 2000s. Aside from a few examples bucking the trend, its vote share has consistently decreased while its membership has shrunk. The party is at a critical juncture – if it does not use the next four years wisely, its future status as the country’s second major party is in grave danger.

With the decisive move of rejecting another grand coalition and instead going into opposition, the SPD has been granted an opportunity to restructure itself and, as the largest opposition force, the party should be able to better differentiate itself in the minds of voters

Many SPD members and supporters yearned to be free of the grand coalition and the members embraced the categorical shift into opposition almost euphorically, expecting it to mark the start of an overhaul of the party’s platform, personnel, and organisational structures: a change that is already underway.

Refining the party’s programme

The electoral platform of the last campaign will be supplemented and refined. During the federal campaign last summer, the SPD presented itself as the guarantor of social justice, and as a bulwark against rightwing populism. It promised to stabilise pensions, reduce taxes for lower- and middle-earners, and ensure free education for all – from kindergarten to university. Finally – so thought the members – could the flaws in the unpopular social reforms enacted by former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder, be corrected. Through this move, the party hoped to appeal to its traditional electorate of blue-collar workers and modest earners. But these adjustments were also intended as a firewall against a rising rightwing populism that was snatching votes from the SPD. The party base was convinced of this platform and voted unanimously for it. It seems unlikely then, that the party will now move in an entirely different direction.

Despite its prominence in the campaign, the SPD’s focus on social justice did not convince enough voters. Exit polls displayed a high distrust of the voters towards the SPD. Voters either didn’t believe the promises that were made or took them for nothing more than empty catchphrases. This reveals an underlying problem. For years the SPD has polled poorly in many crucial policy areas; some polls even display single-digit approval ratings. This means, plainly, that German voters are not convinced that the party is capable of leading the country. This distrust manifested itself in this election, despite the fact that in the last government, SPD ministers reached many of the goals set out in their campaign agenda. In the coming years, the SPD will need to formulate concrete policy proposals that detail the necessary steps instead of just formulating desirable goals. It is not enough to talk about what needs to be done – the debate should focus on how those targets can be achieved.

Another lesson that can be learnt from the federal election is that the party needs to campaign on a broader platform, one that is being held together by a powerful narrative. After the election, Martin Schulz spoke about security as a new social democratic subject area. This subject area includes internal security as well as social security. For the near future, justice and security have the potential to become central topics for social democracy.

The new parliamentary leader, Andrea Nahles, suggested that the SPD should focus on digitisation and its effects on working life and the labour market. In her former role as federal minister of labour, she extensively examined how compatible concepts such as the sharing economy, click working, and increased automation are with a social market economy. Over the next few years, and not only in Germany, the labour market will be radically changed by digitisation. The number of jobs may decrease, job descriptions will change, indefinite full-time job contracts could become increasingly rare, and the influence of multinational tech giants will increase. These changes will be accompanied by fundamental questions about security and social justice that, so far, no party seems to be able to respond to convincingly.

This is a real opportunity for social democrats, as long as the debate is backed by the necessary unbiased research. The often emotional debate about universal basic income as a possible solution to combat the adverse effects of digitisation, however, has shown that this poses quite a challenge.

Regarding future policies it is also important that the party avoids sending mixed signals to the voters. How the SPD dealt with the central topic of the last election campaign – an increasing immigration to Germany – highlights the party’s ambiguity in its stance towards the issue. The party provided no clear position, partly due to a growing rift between more liberal party officials and – at least on this issue – a rather conservative base. This is even more important since questions of cultural identity increasingly interfere with conflicts over the distribution of resources. The party avoided conducting a thorough internal debate on this matter, thus rightwing populists used this space to gain traction, much to the dismay of social democracy. To counter this the SPD must present comprehensive and easy to grasp solutions to protect those vulnerable to the rapid changes wrought by the age of digital capitalism in the realms of both cultural identity and economic justice.

Competing strategies

Three recent strategy papers show that discussion about refining the party programme has already started. Martin Schulz emphasises the necessity of involving the base in the rejuvenation processes. Instead of dictating the course, he wants to listen more to what his party has to say. In the future, Schulz proposes, the party leadership should be elected directly by the party membership instead of delegates attending a party convention. In a way, Schulz is building on the self-healing capabilities of the party. His deputy Ralf Stegner argues that the SPD should focus its energies on a new manifesto that would see the SPD return to traditionally social democratic issues, such as a generous welfare state, strong government, and global peace. However, his fellow deputy, Olaf Scholz, is making the case that the past election campaigns were clearly dominated by these themes, yet bore no fruit. In his view, a balance between economic growth and social justice is required.

Despite the actors’ denial, observers argue that these discussions point to an internal fight about the SPD’s future as either a leftwing party or one of the centre. With no end in sight, this debate will surely continue in the coming months. However, it is of vital importance to resist the temptation to personalize the debates about the party’s future platform.

Fresh faces

On the issue of its personnel, the SPD already seems stable. Likely, Martin Schulz will be re-elected as party leader in December. Despite criticism from the inner circle of the party leadership, Schulz has the base of the party rallied behind him. After all, he was voted into office unanimously at last summer’s party convention. During the election campaign, he managed to mobilise party members as well as attract large crowds at his public appearances. His team had only a short time to prepare for a campaign that was overshadowed by mistakes that had been made by previous party leaderships. Mistakes that he can’t be held accountable for. On the other hand, however, since his nomination the SPD has gained over 30,000 new members. This is a vital for an aging party and also returns the SPD to its status as Germany’s largest party. Schulz has faced several knocks to his authority – his failure in the election being the most notable – but none that forfeit another chance for him. However, in the volatile current political situation, much will depend on how Schulz can manage the SPD’s way forward. In the immediate future, the party and its leadership will be under enormous stress, whether it chooses to join another grand coalition, co-operate with a minority government or forces early elections.

Two key positions have been filled already. The new parliamentary leader, Andrea Nahles is a strategist with good knowledge of the inner workings of the party. She will play a central role in demonstrating both the SPD’s tenacity as an opposition party but also its capabilities of leading a future government.

The likely new general secretary, Lars Klingbeil, represents a new generation within the party and is one of the few SPD politicians who can credibly claim to be a digital politician. In the federal election, he won a seat in a difficult constituency. If he will be appointed by the SPD convention in December his task will be to reform a sluggish party organisation that is marked by an over-abundance of committees and offices into one that is able to effectively run campaigns again. Until 2005, the SPD had a legendary reputation as a campaign machine, but recent elections show a party lacking a strategic centre and falling behind other parties in its use of new campaign technology.

However, personnel changes are causing some unrest within the party. The left wing of the SPD and women’s organisations feel left out. The new leadership is too male-dominated and too centrist, complains, for instance, Marco Bülow. At this point, it’s unclear whether these frictions will persist.

Organisational reform

Within the party, discussions also revolve around a much-needed organisational reform. At present, the opportunity to participate in the party is largely limited to people that have settled in one place and have the time to attend regular meetings. People that have to move a lot because of their work have little opportunity to actively engage with the party. This results in unbalanced representation of the membership among the SPD’s important middle-ranking officials.

It also begs the question: what role should party members play? For the SPD, the membership is still important, but younger politically-active generations show little inclination to join associations or parties, despite actively engaging in the political process. This reinforces the already unbalanced age structure within the party.

Like the CDU, the SPD will lose a lot of members in the coming years due to their age. This will, of course, negatively impact income, but it also raises the question of whether the party really needs to maintain all its complex structures. Instead, it should prioritize the development of new modes of engagement, the creation of a more efficient organisation, and the activation of its members. This will not be easy, but there is already some movement, with Martin Schulz recently supporting some of these organisational changes.

When will the SPD realise its full potential?

Which path will the SPD take? Leaving government would mean no more ministers and far fewer advisors. As the number of influential positions within the party dwindles, it will only increase the likelihood of infighting between different interest groups for those fewer jobs, and also between left and right factions about the political orientation of the party. These conflicts could potentially undermine the authority of the leadership, and possibly the overall strength of the party.

Until recently the SPD could hope to have the time and space it needs for renewal, with only a few important elections on the immediate horizon. It seemed unlikely Merkel would run for re-election, and the CDU’s stability was under threat from internal disputes over personnel and ideology, revolving around the fundamental question of whether the party should move further to the right or remain on a centrist course.

But these assumptions must be suspended in the current climate. Since coalition talks broke down, the CDU has rallied behind Merkel, who has left no doubt about her intention to run if early elections take place. The SPD is torn between feeling a duty to form a government by joining another grand coalition under Merkel’s leadership and the need to rebuild its own party in opposition. A middle ground between these two alternatives might be the right choice for the party and the country: to tolerate a minority government. Thus the SPD can present itself as responsible in times of political crisis while continuing the process of renewal that is already under way.

2017 has shown social democracy’s potential, but it also demonstrated the difficulty of converting that promise into real political successes. This year has not been a decisive victory for Angela Merkel’s CDU either: her party also lost a significant number of voters. The SPD had a real shot at the chancellorship. The 44% of Germans who don’t describe themselves as supporters of any party but are, in theory, willing to cast their vote for the SPD, should be their target.


Image: Martin Schulz
Credit: Vibrant Pictures /