Can Anyone Save the SPD?

Ines Schwerdtner
Loren Balhorn

As its voter base collapses, Germany’s once-mass Social Democratic Party appears to be headed into the political abyss. To make things worse, its leaders think the answer lies in a further shift to the right.

German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Andrea Nahles, attends an election campaign rally for the 2019 European elections on May 22, 2019 in Duesseldorf, western Germany. Ina Fassbender / AFP / Getty

The public response was notably muted when Andrea Nahles stepped down from her positions as party and parliamentary leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) last Sunday — even her political opponents had little comment. Nahles had been the first woman in history to occupy the position and was given the impossible mission of “renewing” the party’s image while remaining in a grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). To outside observers it quickly became apparent that the whole endeavor was doomed to fail, and her resignation thus provoked understandably little public malice.

But what comes next? The contradiction that broke Nahles — the need to renew the SPD while simultaneously governing with the conservative CDU — remains as urgent as ever. And this also means that no one is particularly keen to occupy the newly vacated leadership spots. In the immediate term, the party will be led by a three-person commission consisting of Malu Dreyer, minister-president of Rhineland-Palatinate, Manuela Schwesig, minister-president of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, outgoing SPD parliamentary speaker in Hesse. All three emphasize that their appointment is temporary. Finance minister Olaf Scholz also turned down the job, and the party’s uppermost layers continue to grow noticeably thinner.

Memes Aren’t Enough

Even before the European elections it was obvious this moment was coming. The Social Democrats threw justice minister Katarina Barley into the electoral fray to exuberantly sing the praises of a “social Europe,” while in government the party was sparring with Angela Merkel over every last crumb of social spending. Barley was thus presented with a similarly impossible political task, made even worse by a superficial and embarrassing social media campaign that hurt the SPD more than it helped.

In an awkward attempt to seem more “authentic,” Barley bravely campaigned across the country in a blue hoodie adorned with the stars of the European Union. But hardly anyone fell for her calculated, plastic European hype and nor did anyone believe the promises about climate protection and turning the EU into a “social union.” Ultimately, most voters interested in such motifs ended up voting for the Greens instead. Barley was forced to defend the SPD’s policy in favor of so-called “upload filters” — accused of driving online censorship — even though she was on record opposing the law. This decision cost the party the youth vote, with exit polls last month indicating that only 10 percent of first-time voters opted for the SPD.

Nahles, the other tragic character in this constellation, called her critics’ bluff and proposed a vote of confidence, before resigning when it became clear she would lose. Rumors of a coup had, unsurprisingly, began to mount even in the days prior to her resignation, in precisely the kind of backroom wheeling and dealing by party elites that turns off so many former supporters. Enough failed leaders have been disposed of already, only to be replaced with the next party hack. And voters are losing their patience.

Foreign minister Heiko Mass has now floated the possibility of letting the membership decide on the new leadership, while also introducing a dual-chairpersonship system. It looks as if the old SPD is trying to learn from the Greens: a woman and man as co-leaders would in fact mark a small revolution in party culture.

This Isn’t the Labour Party

But will it be enough? The notion of a membership-wide vote may have been borrowed from the experience of the British Labour Party, where it bolstered Jeremy Corbyn’s position vis-à-vis an entrenched moderate leadership. But Corbyn also had mass, grassroots enthusiasm to back him up. We can’t expect a similar dynamic in the SPD, as there simply isn’t a comparable internal grouping with ambitions to take power.

Young Socialist leader Kevin Kühnert was by far the most impressive Social Democrat during the European campaign. He even talked publicly about democratic socialism — which, technically at least, is still part of the SPD party program. Should a membership-wide vote really be held, he might just have a chance at winning. Especially since he stands for a new generation of party leaders.

Alongside him are left-wing currents like the Forum Demokratische Linke (DL21) around its chairwoman Hilde Mattheis. Members who campaigned against the grand coalition are also beginning to regroup, but it remains to be seen whether they will intervene into the political vacuum beyond producing toothless working papers. The Seeheimer Kreis, an influential grouping on the party’s right wing, still appears overwhelmingly dominant for now.

Beyond democratized structures, the party more than anything desperately needs a new political direction. After twenty years in government and only a handful in the opposition, the neoliberal Schröder era, and the continued stain of the Hartz reforms on the party’s reputation, today’s SPD is seriously hollowed out in terms of both personnel as well as substance. Local chapters are dropping left and right, while an entire electoral base has already decamped.

The liberal center feels more comfortable with the Greens, while blue- and white-collar workers were over the last decade more drawn to Die Linke and now, increasingly, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Shockingly little remains of the once-great people’s party, its identity now dissolved into a bland, diffuse centrism.

Little More Than an Empty Shell

The SPD’s public profile is as torn as the party itself. It no longer can or wants to deliver promises of a better future. A symptomatic expression of this attitude was Andrea Nahles’s speech a few weeks ago at a conference hosted by a SPD-aligned think tank, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The topic under discussion was progressive economic policy — once the very essence of the SPD brand — with a fairly radical critique of the German export model and talk of ways out of the social inequality crisis. Nahles herself gave a shamefully superficial speech and called on participants to put forward “good suggestions,” then quickly left before the opening panel even began.

For years now, the SPD’s image has been characterized by a toxic mixture of cowardice and being utterly overwhelmed by events. Thus, any break with the status quo would have to be of a three-fold nature: a leadership change, a political shift, and a cultural transformation. Is the party still a locomotive into the future, or a co-manager of the existing order? Can it withstand competitive internal elections and tensions, will it find the words to talk about its historic decline and the courage for a new beginning?

Germany’s peculiarities also make renewal of the main center-left party less likely than in the British case. This also has to do with the countries’ differing electoral systems, since Britain’s first-past-the-post system for general elections favors the major parties over their competitors, entrenching their centrality to the electoral system. In Germany, on the other hand, after the SPD passed the Hartz reforms, Die Linke could get a foothold as a new force in parliament, as most Social-Democratic left-wingers and dissidents left together with former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. In the former East, Die Linke even managed to reach major party status, though it is now losing this position to the AfD.

The SPD and Die Linke are united by a shared problem: neither of them have profited from the crisis of the other parties, and instead are losing voters to the Greens, the AfD, and above all non-voters. It would appear that both “workers’ parties” have lost touch with their core clientele. This will become painfully apparent in the upcoming eastern state elections this fall.

The Specter Haunting Social Democracy

The crisis of the SPD is yet to reach its climax, and clever tactics alone won’t be enough to stave it off. But a real break with current policies and party structures would, realistically speaking, take years to enact — a fact that in the short term may even push the party further to the right. Old-guard figures like former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel are already champing at the bit for such a change.

In his newfound career as an op-ed author, Gabriel has commented on the crisis by calling for the party to get tough on, among other things, migration. He served as SPD chairman for nearly eight years, and his return to the leadership would further delay any moves towards democratization and replace them with yet another one-man show at the top. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time this recipe of snappy sound bites and macho posturing wins the day.

Regardless of who emerges victorious from its internal power struggle, the SPD can no longer afford to sidestep the question of the welfare state in the twenty-first century. The same is true of the need for a sober analysis of the party’s spending and redistribution policies both in Germany and the EU as a whole. A sustainable, left-wing industrial policy — thus far no party celebrity has been willing to use those three magic words, “Green New Deal” — could point the way towards a new, progressive program. The party would then have to use that program to compete with Die Linke and the Greens, while at the same time revolutionizing itself from within.

Is this possible? Though he ended up falling flat on his face, the brief wave of hype around 2017 chancellorship candidate Martin Schulz demonstrated that, despite everything, the public demand for progressive social-democratic politics is overwhelmingly there — if you can tap into it.

A version of this article originally appeared in WOZ: Die Wochenzeitung.

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Ines Schwerdtner is an author, political analyst, and co-host of the podcast She lives in Berlin.

Loren Balhorn is a contributing editor at Jacobin and co-editor, together with Bhaskar Sunkara, of Jacobin: Die Anthologie (Suhrkamp, 2018).

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