Should I stay or should I go? sang the Clash, a sentiment that comes readily to mind when one considers the dilemma Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is facing. After the exploratory coalition talks between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), the Greens and the Liberals (FDP) surprisingly collapsed in November, the Social Democrats are now considering forming another Grand Coalition with Merkel’s Conservative Union. At least on the face of it. At their federal party convention in Berlin, the delegates gave their leadership a mandate to start ‘open talks’ with the Christian Democrats, but they also put up several hurdles. Accordingly, the party leadership has to convene another party convention and gain the delegates’ approval before entering into substantive coalition negotiations with Merkel’s CDU/CSU. And if they happen to agree on something, all SPD party members will ultimately decide in a members’ vote on whether the party should form another Grand Coalition or not.
It’s always tease, tease, tease
Economically and politically, Germany is the strongest country in Europe. Europe is looking for German leadership and, given the country’s budget surplus, there is remarkable leeway also domestically. So why is the SPD so hesitant about becoming a governing party again? Well, crunch the numbers. The SPD-CDU/CSU coalition between 2005 and 2009 cost the former more than 11 per cent of its votes. During the most recent coalition with ‘Mutti’ the Social Democrats lost further ground, falling from 25.7 to 20.5 per cent. The SPD’s appetite for being won over again by Frau Merkel is understandably limited. But the Social Democrats’ reluctance goes even deeper
One day it’s fine and next it’s black
During the 154 years since the SPD’s foundation there has always been a conflict between the high, sometimes utopian vision of a distant but surely better future and sobering day-to-day politics. One hundred years ago, this conflict was represented by the struggle between the Marxist Social Democratic thinker Karl Kautsky and his internal party opponent Eduard Bernstein. Kautsky claimed that the SPD was a revolutionary party waiting for capitalism to collapse. Bernstein urged instead a reformist strategy, focusing on things achievable in the near future. This conflict might be expressed in terms of political opposition and real engagement, which might compromise ideals but is at least aimed at tangible improvements: aka “dirtying your hands.” In its heyday, the SPD drew strength from this tension between idealism and pragmatism. Willy Brandt as party chairman and Helmut Schmidt as chancellor indeed resolved this tension in a very productive way.
Exactly who’m I supposed to be?
Little of this productive tension has been evident in most recent coalition governments. In the 2013 coalition agreement, the SPD was able to push through major reforms, such as the introduction of a statutory minimum wage. But during the subsequent four years, it just seemed to fall in line behind Merkel. The SPD was no longer regarded as an attractive alternative with a long-term vision of the future. Instead, Germany’s oldest party was dismissed as a reliable partner, a bit boring and grey, true to its reformist tradition, but lacking vision and inspiration.
This indecision’s bugging me
The only way of making GroKo« viable or even a success for the SPD – both to members and voters – is to return to the productive combination of long-term vision and concrete projects. In day-to-day politics, the party has a lot to offer. When it comes to healthcare, it is campaigning for a ‘citizens’ insurance« to overcome Germany’s two-tier insurance system, in which, for instance, public employees get a far better deal. It is also calling for equal pay for men and women and for modernising the German labour market to guarantee safety and stability in the tee teeth of digitalization. However, at the level of vision, the once proud and brave SPD seems vague and unclear.
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So come on and let me know
To fill this conspicuous gap, SPD leader Martin Schulz laid out a bold vision during his speech at the party convention in early December. The former president of the European Parliament spoke out in favour of taking a significant step towards a United States of Europe. Referring to the SPD’s Heidelberg Programme of 1925, in which the party committed itself to European unification for the first time, he outlined a stronger, closer, more active Europe. A Europe that acts as one on refugees, against tax evasion and with a strong capacity to fight economic crises in individual member states. This seems odd in a time of Brexit, euro-crisis and growing anti-European sentiment in significant parts of the continent. However, the Social Democratic proposals need a European framework and resonate with public opinion. There is a growing pro-European engagement in Germany (“Pulse of Europe”) and 42 per cent of Germans support the idea of a ‘United States of Europe’, a figure more than double the SPD’s share of the vote at the last election.
Darling you got to let me know
The pro-European case could be what puts clear blue water between the conservative CDU/CSU and the SPD. It could help to bring all the detailed proposals into a Grand Design. By constantly referring to this vision, the SPD could make clear that the compromises that will have to be made within a ‘GroKo’ are not the party’s final position, but only a first step in the right direction. Of course, a lot more is needed if the SPD is to enjoy enduring success. A digital updating of the party’s anachronistic decision-making structure comes to mind as well as credible collective action by the party’s executive committee. Above all, a clear vision of where the party is headed, supported by day-to-day political interventions, would be the best way to turn the challenges of a Grand Coalition into an opportunity for a stronger and more visible SPD.
Dr. Christian Krell is the Director of the Nordic Office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Stockholm. Member of the SPD's Basic Values Commission and lecturer at the University of Bonn, where his academic focus includes the theory and practice of social democracy.