Tuesday 2 February 2010

Auf Wiedersehen Oskar

How far was the political breakthrough of Germany's Die Linke party due to the charismatic leadership of Oskar Lafontaine? Once the SPD's candidate for Chancellor and its Finance Minister in the third way era, Lafontaine is now standing down as leader of the left and leaving politics, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

In this guest post, Denis MacShane reflects on Lafontaine's impact across several eras of German politics, and asks how his departure will change the politics of the German left.

The shock news that Oskar Lafontaine the eternally youthful No-sayer of the German left is standing down as leader of the Left Party (Die Linke) and as a German MP opens the door to fascinating possibilities for the German left.

Lafontaine underwent a serious cancer operation last November and has now announced his retirement from politics.

This removes one of the most charismatic mobilisers on the European left. Lafontaine has been a star figure and unfulfilled hope of the German left ever since the Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt era came to an end with Schmidt's defeat as Chancellor in 1982.

Like Labour in the 1980s or the French socialists today, the German left after 1982 went up every cul-de-sac they could find.

Lafontaine played a left card by calling for Germany to quit Nato. He played an anti-union card by opposing the German unions' campaign for a 35 hour week which was won just as the relatively closed economy of west Europe imploded under the pressure of Asia's export focused industrialisation.

Lafontaine had a power base as Premier of the small Saar Land or region on the French border.

He ran against Helmut Kohl in 1990. His Cassandra-like warnings that the economic consequences of German unification would cripple German growth and job-creation after the fall of the Berlin Wall have been more than justified.

But Cassandras never win elections and Lafontaine the orator darling of the left and the 1968 generation could not reach out to a wider audience. Like Neil Kinnock he was the hope of his party but not of the wish of the voters.

He was attacked while speaking in the 1990 election and his knife wielding assailant cut deep as much into his psyche of the Peter Pan of the German left as into his flesh.

In March 1998, I was sitting with Gerhard Schroeder in his armoured BMW after speaking with the future SPD chancellor at a closing meeting in his Lower Saxony Land campaign.

It was Oskar Lafontaine conceding that Schroeder, his eternal rival since young socialist days for the affection of the SPD activists, would be the candidate to take on an enfeebled Helmut Kohl in the September 1998 federal election.

Schroeder and Lafontaine chatted amicably as Gerd offered Oscar the top job of Finance Minister and they discussed who would get other jobs. Suddenly Schroeder realised there was a British MP in the car listening and noting and put down the car phone.

Lafontaine was fascinated by Labour's success and the SPD's 1998 campaign was modelled on Labour's 1997 win even to the point of copying the pledge card which I handed to Lafontaine.

But in government Lafontaine could not handle the ├╝ber realism and "New Middle" style of Schroeder. The radical darling of German politics was the Green Party's Joschka Fischer who became Europe's most innovative and stylish foreign minister leaving Lafontaine in the shade.

The SPD had inherited a poor debt and fiscal position from Kohl and had no idea how to set about reducing the 4 million unemployed. Schroeder decided to rebuild German industrial capitalism by holding down wages and Lafontaine refused to be the police man for this policy.

Unlike Britain where there was an almost Teutonic iron discipline in the Labour cabinet until after the 2005 election German SPD politics were chaotic, vain, and driven by personal ambition and ego.

After 2000 Lafontaine looked over the political landscape and reverted to a youtful leftism. He launched his own left party and then merged it with the left-over Stalinists of East German communism who had a following amongst those East Germans who were the loser of unification.

He found plenty of supporters in west Germany as many SPD activists could not stomach the compromises of Schroeder's New Labourish embrace of global capitalism.

Germany's PR system of voting makes it easy for any breakaway left party to get some traction and Die Linke won seats at regional and national level. The question of whether the SPD should form an alliance with Die Linke bedevilled and bedevils German left politics as does the relationship with the anti-industry Greens.

Like a left version of David Owen there were too many bitter memories of Lafontaine walking out of his party and government to make rapprochement easy.

Advocates of ultra electoral reform might ponder the break down of the democratic left in Germany which PR has helped accelerate.

The winners in terms of increased votes as a result of the economic crisis has been the liberal rightist Free Democrats who are now in coalition with Angela Merkel's CDU. Lafontaine, far from opening the door to a new era of left politics in Germany just greased the slip path to power for the right.

But German politics will be duller with his passing. There is no one of his stature in Die Linke. A new generation of SPD leaders are now in place though as yet no one of Willy Brandt's or Helmut Kohl's stature or Gerhard Schroeder's vote-winning appeal has emerged.

But with Oskar now retired the German left may find that more unity, more discipline, and more team-work are better ways to win power than compelling oratory and catching headlines.


Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and a member of the Fabian Executive Committee. You can read more of his commentary on international issues at denismacshane-international.blogspot.com.

1 comment:

Stuart White said...

Denis: you refer to Lafontaine merging his group with the 'left-over Stalinists of East German communism'. I have no expertise in this area, and so, as far as I know, this may be an accurate description of the political grouping in question. But I wonder. Did the grouping in question simply believe in a return to the GDR? Did they espouse a socialism that was in some ways - possibly important ways - critical of the GDR? If so, then that 'Stalinist' description is unfair. One of things I like about Next Left is that we seek to be fair-minded and accurate in the way we characterise those who disagree with us, and avoid negative stereotyping. For all I know, your 'Stalinist' description might well be fine by these standards. But it has the whiff of caricature about it.