The SPD Needs More Than Just New Leaders

After more than 20 years of dogmatic neoliberalism, Germany’s Social Democrats have elected their first left-leaning leadership in a generation. But it may be too late to win back workers.

Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken celebrating their victory at the headquarters of the German Social Democrats (SPD) on November 30, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Till Rimmele / Getty Images

Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) hasn’t had it easy these last few years. After governing the country under Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005 and passing a number of deeply unpopular neoliberal reforms, the party has seen its electoral fortunes decline precipitously ever since. Unable to muster a governing majority in 2005, the SPD was forced to become junior partner to the Christian Democrats (CDU) led by Angela Merkel — a position of weakness in which this historic mass party has remained stuck for ten of the last fourteen years.

The results have been catastrophic for the SPD. Marginalized by Merkel’s centrist maneuvering, the Social Democrats has grown increasingly indistinguishable from their conservative counterparts and increasingly unable to make a compelling case for why voting for them will make any difference in people’s lives. Voters have thus drifted away, first to Die Linke on the Left, then to the Greens in the center, and most recently to the Alternative für Deutschand (AfD) on the far right. Even greater numbers of former SPD supporters have simply stopped going to the polls altogether.

It’s no surprise, then, that recent elections have seen the party continually registering its lowest ever result, in marked contrast to the rise of the Greens and the AfD. Indeed, in the most recent European elections in May, the SPD crashed to just 15 percent support, compelling chairwoman Andrea Nahles to resign in humiliation. Such a defeat inevitably raised fundamental questions about the Social Democrats’ ability to survive in the twenty-first century.

At first, the party’s reaction did not appear as emphatic as the situation demanded. As a mood of panic swept across the party apparatus and membership alike, the SPD passed seemingly cosmetic reforms, replacing the one-person leader position with a two-person chairpersonship, to be elected for the first time by a membership-wide vote.

The departure of many members to Die Linke in the mid-2000s as well as the party’s wider rightward drift, which has watched its membership numbers halve in the last few decades, appeared to doom party left-wingers’ prospects. Nevertheless, sensing that the final showdown over the SPD’s soul was approaching, a number of prominent left-leaning figures declared their candidacies.

Lasting nearly six months and generating surprisingly little attention in the media or the wider public (indicating the extent to which the SPD has declined from its former prominence), the race for the leadership soon thinned out. Ultimately, neoliberal party stalwart Olaf Scholz and the relatively unknown Klara Geywitz faced off against the representatives of the party’s left wing, SPD parliamentarian Saskia Esken and former North Rhine–Westphalian minister of finance Norbert Walter-Borjans (together nicknamed “Eskabo”).

Far and away the dominant faction in parliament and the apparatus, the right wing, flanked by most of the mainstream media, dominated the public debate and appeared poised to win the election on November 30. Yet at the end of the night — after public broadcaster NDR accidentally announced a victory for Scholz and Geywitz — it was instead the left-wing candidates Esken and Walter-Borjans who won out, with slightly more than 53 percent of the vote. Suddenly, and to almost everyone’s surprise (probably including the candidates themselves), Eskabo’s unexpected victory means the SPD’s political orientation could be up for serious debate for the first time in decades.

Winning the Battle

It’s important not to exaggerate the change that’s actually taken place. If you believe the mainstream media, Eskabo’s election marked “the return of class struggle” to the SPD. Indeed, as if things hadn’t already been going south for years under the existing leadership clique, commentators declared “adieu, SPD” and predicted that the party’s new “hard-left” orientation would consign it to the dustbin of history. Perhaps the most puzzling critique of the new leadership came from Yascha Mounk, the German-American political scientist best known for his denunciations of “populism” in the pages of Die Zeit. He suggested that Eskabo’s platform was far too socially liberal and would alienate the German working class once and for all — less LGBT rights, more meat and potatoes, so to speak.

In reality, the new SPD leadership is moderately social-democratic and has little to do with the kinds of progressive neoliberal identity politics of which they were accused. Walter-Borjans, the more prominent of the two new co-chairs from the SPD stronghold of North Rhine–Westphalia, made a name for himself as state finance minister in the early 2010s by purchasing a stolen CD listing the Swiss bank accounts of wealthy Germans looking to dodge the country’s comparatively high tax rates. He later published a popular book on the subject, outlining how the country’s rich systematically avoid paying what they owe and how progressive tax policies could contribute to addressing social inequality.

Neither Esken nor Walter-Borjans have any plans to nationalize major industries or engage in major confrontations with German capital. But they openly criticize the party’s neoliberal turn, and Esken even drops the word “socialism” from time to time. Given how far to the right mainstream economic policy has drifted, they represent a genuine breath of fresh air and a chance to return the SPD to being a party that seeks to win a better deal for workers at the negotiating table.

They have refrained from directly attacking the grand coalition between CDU and SPD, but advocate renegotiating its terms. They’ve called for more investments in infrastructure, changing the government’s meager climate protection package, and engaging in deficit spending — a taboo in German politics for many years. For socialists and anyone looking to push politics to the left in Germany, the new chairpersons represent a positive step in the right direction.

Winning the War

As anyone who has followed Jeremy Corbyn’s four-year battle against the Labour Party establishment will know, winning the leadership is, at best, a single battle, but only the beginning of the real war. Decades of attrition and the consolidation of an unaccountable caste of neoliberal functionaries has left the party’s left wing weak and disoriented. Its main representative, Democratic Left 21, is a clear minority and disposes of only a handful of influential figures. Unlike Corbyn’s Labour left — itself hardly all-dominant — socialists in the SPD also face parliamentary competition from Die Linke, making it more difficult to gather a critical mass of left-wingers.

Whether Corbyn in the UK or Bernie Sanders in the United States, both of these successful examples have taught us that the apparatchiks will not go down without a fight. Used to running the party like a family business, they will do everything they can to prevent the SPD from moving left and returning to their posts as soon as possible — dirty tricks included. For Eskabo’s program to become reality, the new leaders will have to confront the establishment head-on and remove their opponents from influential positions in the party apparatus.

Unfortunately, so far, they seem keener to reconcile with Olaf Scholz’s camp and already announced their intention of integrating his running mate, Geywitz, as party vice chair. Now that the battle has been won, both sides have reverted to the kind of bland unity rhetoric that papers over political differences and gives an opening to the right to undermine the new course. One can only hope that the honeymoon is short-lived, before it’s too late.

The SPD’s base is aging and no longer able to campaign the way it once could under popular and widely respected leaders like Willy Brandt in the 1960s. Eskabo’s triumph last weekend is a hopeful sign that the SPD may yet avoid the fate of its European sister parties and return to being a popular party of left reformism, but the road ahead will be more than rocky. As the most powerful country in Europe, what happens in Germany affects all 500 million people living on the continent. The possibility of a renewed, leftward-looking SPD is thus a very big deal indeed. With the political center increasingly dysfunctional and the populist right on the ascent, the stakes couldn’t be higher.