Progressive Futures

The sick man of German politics

19 June 2018

Nahles pledges SPD reform following ruthlessly honest analysis of party's election defeat

Penny Bochum
photocosmos1 / Shutterstock.com

Following the SPD’s devastating defeat in the September 2017 election, when it struggled to poll a fifth of the vote, the departing leader Martin Schulz commissioned a report to explore the reasons for the defeat.

The report, entitled ‘Learning from Mistakes’, was published on 11 June. It is brutal.

The 100-page report publicly documents the party’s weaknesses in relentless detail. It maps out the ‘deepest crisis since 1949’, describing the loss of votes by the ‘people’s party without people’ and argues that the 2017 defeat was a ‘shipwreck announced in advance’.

Although it makes for hard reading, it is part of a positive process and is a sign that the party is taking its vow to renew seriously.

Leader Andrea Nahles has pledged an overhaul of the party HQ, Willy-Brandt-Haus, by the end of the summer. The party’s renewal process also includes a major policy review, due to report at the end of next year.

‘Learning from Mistakes’ begins by identifying some particular problems with the 2017 campaign strategy. First, Martin Schulz was nominated as candidate for chancellor far too late, in January 2017.

Moreover, the party tried to run a campaign in six weeks, whereas it should have started as soon as the last election had finished. Astonishingly, the party strategy after Schulz’s nomination was actually to blur the party message until the summer, in order to make time to fill in policy gaps and avoid giving opponents ammunition.

No wonder then, that the so-called ‘Schulz train’ crashed very quickly.

However, there are also many deep-rooted, long-term problems identified in the report. Many of the problems identified are similar to those experienced by the British Labour Party in 2015 (as analysed in the Policy Network publication Can Labour Win? by Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice).

The report found that the SPD programme lacked clarity and a coherent set of concrete policies; it clung to the pragmatic middle ground. Although the party was clearly associated with the key social democratic value of social justice, it remained an abstract idea; there was no relevant policy programme associated with it. The party seemed to fear being clear about its aims and policies. One key voter criticism of Labour in 2015 was that it was not courageous about saying what it stood for.

The SPD also failed to carve out an identity separate from its coalition partners, the CDU/CSU, in the last government and it failed to get any credit for policies it was responsible for, such as the minimum wage. This inability to establish its own identity was one reason a third of party members voted against entering a new coalition in March.

Moreover, although Schulz was more trusted than Angela Merkel on social justice and being in touch with ordinary people, he was outranked on key election-winning values such as management of the economy and leadership competence. This was also a major problem for Labour in 2015 (and remains a challenge today).

Polls found that immigration and asylum was seen as the most important problem the country faced; but, like Labour, the SPD was not trusted on this issue, barely registering higher scores than the far-right Alternative for Germany.

The report listed some blistering criticisms of the campaign team at head office, including lack of a clear responsibility structure, lack of transparency, lack of creativity and poor social media communications.

The party’s ‘enormous communications hole’ was exposed as a major failure, both organisationally and conceptually. For example, the party did not understand the importance of political concepts and language, or coin slogans to encapsulate key policy ideas.

The report also describes a ‘creeping decoupling’ between the central leadership and the regional and local leadership, which has fueled a pronounced mistrust of the Berlin leadership. In turn, local functionaries have become separated from the grassroots members, who often feel unrepresented and unheard.

This situation was highlighted in the SPD leadership election in April when Nahles was challenged by a little-known outsider, a mayor from Schleswig-Holstein, who opposed what many see as the centralising of power in the leadership of the party and instead advocated increasing the influence of grassroots members.

Labour’s 2015 defeat was followed by the victory of an outsider candidate for leader – Jeremy Corbyn; the SPD’s outsider was defeated. However it is clear that the SPD must implement significant reform if the party is to survive. This includes, as Nahles has understood, listening to its membership. The leadership will certainly be keeping one eye on the British experience and what can happen if the grassroots of the party mobilise.