Saturday, 6 September 2008

Meanwhile in Germany ...

The long running party leadership issue will finally conclude very shortly, with beleaguered current leader Kurt Beck expected to acknowledge that he will not lead the party in a General Election next year. That would clear the way for SPD leaders to anoint Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the party's Chancellor-candidate, through a coronation rather than a contest.

The announcement may come as the leadership meet tomorrow at Lake Schwielowsee to agree the party platform, though there are some reports it might be held until after the Bavarian state elections at the end of the month.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier was one of the key architects of the Gerhard Schroeder Agenda 2010 reforms. He is currently Deputy Chancellor and Foreign Minister. On the centre-right of the party, he has the respect and stature to be a unity candidate.

In some ways, the challenges for the German Social Democrats parallel those for Labour in Britain. In others, they are more difficult still. The presence of Oskar Lafontaine's Linkspartei - polling around 15% - presents an oppositionist challenge with significant appeal to working-class voters, despite being very short on constructive solutions. The Greens are also an established national force. If the majority of voters are likely to vote for centre-left and left, the Social Democrats face a major challenge to secure 30% of the vote.

A Steinmeier leadership rules out any coalition with the Lafontaine left. But it is difficult to see how that could have worked in government over any sustained period, and the fear of a centre-left-left coalition government could have lost voters in the centre. One disadvantage for the SPD is that the Liberal (FDP) party is more centre-right than centre-left, making a 'traffic lights' coalition more difficult. The FDP would like a return to power after more than a decade out of office, unlike the LibDems in Britain (whose majority preference is quite probably to be uncoalitionable).

Distinguishing the centre-left from the centre-right is harder than in Britain. There is a grand coalition, and Angela Merkel can offer rather more solid evidence than David Cameron to substantiate her claim to be a centrist. She has not found it difficult to work with the Social Democrats. (We have almost no Christian Democrats in Britain: the Chris Patten wing of the Tory party having been organised out in parliamentary selections over the last decade by a generation which is much more Eurosceptic than many people notice). The CDU will run a campaign centred on Merkel as a candidate.

There is pressure from the left of the SPD for the party to distance itself from the employment reform agenda of Gerhard Schroeder. The new leadership's analysis will be that the party should not concede that territory to their coalition partners - but that a public case for them needs to be made in social democratic terms.

One of the great missed opportunities for the British Labour party was to fail to emulate the great revisionist shift which the German Social Democrats made at Bad Godesberg in the 1950s. A decade ago, New Labour had a tendency to evangelise and preach that it had all of the answers. it makes more sense for the parties of the centre-left to learn from the common challenges they face in different circumstances. In Britain, we spend a lot of time looking across the Atlantic - but we should pay more attention to what is happening on the other side of the channel too.

UPDATE: (Sunday). German reports suggests an announcement, though this had also been denied. notes polling showing Steinmeier more popular than Merkel. There is rather more coverage in the New York Times than any of the British broadsheets.

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