Sunday, January 21, 2018

Does Germany need a new party of the left?

The German SPD has made an initial agreement in exploratory talks for a new coalition government with Angela Merkel's CDU and the CSU. Such a new coalition would continue the current one, which resulted from the 2013 elections. The 2017 parliamentary elections were in October, but a new government has not yet been formed.

A continuation of the Grand Coalition (GroKo, as it's called for short) has been very controversial within the SPD. A party convention on Sunday approved the concept by a substantial but not overwhelming vote, 56% of the delegates supporting it. Although the convention also demanded further negotiations on the coalition pact. According to the analysis of Max Ferstl und Jasmin Siebert in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Wie es nach dem Ja der Genossen weitergeht 21.01.2018), negotiating the new agreement will take at least another four weeks. And it has to be approved by an SPD convention again.

The party base has very good reasons to worry about the future of the SPD in a new edition of the GroKo. After the 2013 election, the three parties SPD, the Greens and the Left Party had enough parliamentary seats to form a majority for a red-red-green coalition. Merekel's CDU/CSU had the largest vote, so they got the first shot at trying to form a government. The SPD didn't even make a weak attempt to hold out for red-red-green. They were almost pathetically eager to become a junior partner in another GroKo headed by Merkel.

In 2017, the three parties didn't win enough seats together to even have a possibility of forming a red-red-green government. Merkel tried but failed to reach an agreement for a "Jamaica" coalition (CDU-CSU-Greens-FDP). So even after party leader and Chancellor candidate Martin Schultz initial rejection of any consideration of a new GroKo, he soon came around and reached an agreement which he and his supporters attempt to sell to the party base as including big improvements in the social-democratic direction. But the claim isn't entirely credible to voters. As ORF reports (Klare Haltung von Schulz 21.01.2018)
In den Umfragen rutschen die Sozialdemokraten unterdessen ab. So sieht etwa die überwiegende Mehrheit der Deutschen die SPD als Verliererin der Sondierungsgespräche mit der Union. Eine Umfrage des Meinungsforschungsinstituts YouGov im Auftrag der dpa ergab, dass nur neun Prozent der Auffassung sind, die SPD hätte sich durchgesetzt. 29 Prozent meinen dagegen: die CDU.

[Meanwhile, the Social Democrats have been slumping in the polls. So, for example, the overwhelming majority of the Germans see the SPD as the loser in the exploratory talks with the Union {CDU and CSU}. A poll by the opinion research institute YouGov for the dpa {news agency} showed that only 9% were of the opinion that the SPD had succeeded. 29% thought the opposite: the CDU.]
The low numbers on both sides in that poll are probably a reflection of that fact that the details of the initial agreement are "inside baseball," as American political commentators say. More seriously, the poll also found that in a new election, which would be the most likely result of a new failure to form a coalition over the next month, the SPD would get 3% less than they did in October.

The SPD is experiencing its own version of the crisis of social-democracy in Europe. The center-left was at a high point at the end of the 1990s. But at the same time, the European social-democrats started embracing the neoliberal gospel of reduction of government, deregulation, weaker unions and lower wages, and support for corporate-deregulation treaties staged as "trade" treaties. Once the center-left parties took major economic questions off the table for the neoliberal TINA (There Is No Alternative) position and the 2008 economic crisis hit, followed by the malfunction of the eurozone in the subsequent debt crises, a political crisis followed for social-democratic parties from Greece to Italy to France to Britain to elsewhere and, increasingly so now, in Germany.

Currently, that crisis for the SPD is manifesting itself in the low poll numbers, the deep divisions in the party over a new GroKo, and a new proposal from Left Party leaders Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine for a Sammlungsbewegung (collective movement) on the left aimed at a new kind of unity movement or party for the left factions of the SPD and the Greens and (most of) the Left Party. ("Links Unten" Der Spiegel 4/2018 20.01.2018)

Albrecht von Lucke makes the case for the SPD agreeing to new GroKo in Die gärige Republik Blätter 1/2018. Essentially, he argues that being in government would give an SPD that was focused on building its image a chance to prove itself as a center-left party again by fighting for left ideas, programs, and positions. It's telling, though, that even in an article advocating for SPD participation in a GroKo, Von Lucke displays some pragmatic doubts about whether the SPD can actually pull that off. For instance, he notes that Martin Schultz has been blaming their participation in the current GroKo for the decline in the SPD's vote since 2013. Which raises the obvious question: what can voters expect different from the SPD in a new one?

He mentions that in the context of what even the Spiegel "Links Unten" piece flags as a critical turning point, the decision of Gerhard Schröder's red-green coalition to adopt his "Agenda 2010" program which included the now-infamous Hartz IV reforms, which have become a synonym for low wages, loss of union protection, and precious employment ("McJobs"). The Spiegel article gives it the obligatory praise for neoliberal dogma, saying that the "economic data" increased and "the number of unemployed sank." But:
... zugleich führten die Reformen zu einer massiven Ausweitung der Leiharbeit und erhöhten die Zahl der prekären Beschäftigungsverhältnisse.
Für Millionen Menschen, die sich einst von der Arbeiterpartei SPD beschützt gefühlt hatten, waren die Sozialdemokraten zu Verrätern geworden.

[... at the same time, the reforms led to a massive spread of temporary work and boosted the number of precarious employment situations. For millions of people who had once felt protected by the workers' party SPD, the Social Democrats had become traitors.]
This has been a widespread pattern for the center-left parties in Europe and in the United States, as well. Their traditional base was working class and "middle class," although that term is defining in various ways. When the center-left parties started adapting economic policies fundamentally similar to those of conservatives that resulted in increasing hardship and decreasing security for their traditional base voters. And they got hurt badly.

Nelson Lichtenstein gives an insightful description of how that process played out during the Clinton Administration in the US (A Fabulous Failure: Clinton's 1990s and the Origins of Our Times The American Prospect Winter 2018, currently behind subscription):
Many recall the 1990s as a moment of economic triumph with increasingly low unemployment, 4 percent annual economic growth, a booming stock market, even a balanced federal budget by the end of the millennium. Economists Alan Blinder and Janet Yellen called those years the "Fabulous Decade" in 2001, while a 2015 opinion piece in The New York Times bore the title "The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously." Although the Republicans had seized control of Congress in 1994, it is worth remembering that Ronald Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, took only 37 percent of the vote in 1992 while that stalwart Republican, Robert Dole, won just 40 percent in 1996. Politics were clearly in flux. The Clintons therefore had the historical moment to recast not just trade, investment, and health-care policies, but the regulations, norms, and expectations that would govern a post-Cold War version of U.S. capitalism.

Their failure to take advantage of these fortuitous circumstances doomed any effort to build a more equitable economy or a political order powerful enough to sustain a dominant liberalism, a failure Donald Trump would one day seize. [my emphasis]
The SPD currently faces a dilemma in which their previous base voters and many of the current ones was lost confidence in the party's willing to fight for their interests.

So, on the one hand, participating in another GroKo would give the SPD a chance to have direct effect on government policy and give them public prominence in the form of ministerial positions. On the other, in this political moment, the election results and opinion polls seem to indicate that the SPD needs reframe its image. Not only in terms of policy but in showing their willingness to fight. The latter didn't happen very much when the SPD headed the opposition to Merkel's government of 2009-2013. They had served as the junior partner in a Merkel-headed GroKo 2005-2009. During the interim, their leadership was apparently focused on a new opportunity to become Merkel's junior partner in government again. Thus, the lack of any pretense in 2013 that they were even interested in a possible red-red-green government.

Albrecht Müller discusses both the current GroKo dilemma and the idea of a left Sammlungsbewegung in Linke Sammlungsbewegung – eine Schnapsidee oder die richtige Konsequenz aus der erkennbaren Ausweglosigkeit? Nachdenkseiten 15.01.2018. He argues that in the former case, it would be a bad idea. But he thinks the latter is a good idea. Because, in his judgment, all three of the left parties look to have poor political prospects for the near future.

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