Germany: no SPD left turn


November 7, 2007 19:02 |by Victor Grossman

looking at what's behind the much-vaunted "shift to the left" of Germany's social democrats. .

"Social Democrats in Germany take sharp left turn," reported the media after the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) recent congress in Hamburg.

"Economic reforms put on backburner" read another headline.

As usual, the reporting was worse than misleading. What really is a left turn? What are economic reforms? And what was behind all the brouhaha?

When the SPD under Gerhard Schroeder governed the country before 2005 with the Greens as junior partners, the legislation which it pushed through meant lower taxes for the wealthy but great hardships for working people, worst of all for people without jobs.

These laws were labelled "necessary reforms," but they backfired.

In 2005, in special mid-term elections, the SPD lost so many voters that it soon found itself the junior partner in a coalition with the right-wing Christian Democrats led by Angela Merkel.

The policies didn't change, but, while Merkel has managed to guide her party to a fairly stable opinion poll rating close to 40 per cent, the haemorrhaging of support for the SPD started to become life-threatening.

No-one liked to admit it, but the reason for its decline was obvious.

The only alternative for those disappointed by the Merkel party was the extreme right, which has so far been largely restricted to nostalgic neonazis and thuggish youngsters and, except in a few dangerous areas, is not yet up to the 5 per cent level needed for seats in the Bundestag.

But, for disgruntled followers of the Social Democrats there was at last an alternative - The Left party.

Formed after a merger between the eastern Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which in turn had grown out of the ruling party in the former GDR, and alienated SPD, greens and others in a western-based grouping, The Left managed to get over 8 per cent of the vote in 2005 as an electoral alliance.

Now that the two parties have officially joined together at all levels, it is polling between 9 and 13 per cent. The gains are mostly from former SPD voters, as well as some from the similarly rightward-veering Greens.

You could almost smell the fear in the air as the SPD watched itself losing relevance as a left-wing party.

Even the most conservative labour leaders began to find it difficult to maintain their old ties with the SPD, with a steadily growing number looking to The Left.

A few months ago, party leader Kurt Beck, an easy-going, jowled fellow with a permanent three-day beard, decided that a rebranding was the only way to save the party.

'The SPD desperately hopes to reactivate its old, near-forgotten image as the advocate of working men and women.'

The issue that he picked was unemployment insurance. Under measures once pushed through by his own party and the Greens, with the acquiescence of all but the left-wing PDS, unemployed workers no longer receive proper unemployment compensation after a year or, in some cases, one-and-a-half years out of work. Instead, they get a low level of benefit a bit like the British jobseekers' allowance.

Even to receive this, Germans have to declare and largely sacrifice personal possessions above a certain value, possibly including anything from family jewellery or a car to an insurance policy or a flat bigger than a certain size.

They have to accept any job that is offered to them, even if it is for a ridiculously low wage like 1-2 euros (70p-£1.40) an hour.

They also have to prove that they have made the required number of job applications each month and they must be available at all times, needing permission to take a trip longer than a day.

Effectively, working people who had paid unemployment tax for their entire working lives were now being shortchanged.

The measure, which was just one of the so-called reforms supposedly aimed at repairing the economy, was hated by everyone that it affected, but especially by older workers who, when laid off, had difficulty finding work again. It greatly increased the feeling of insecurity and fear in workplaces all over the country, placing employers in a position of strength.

Beck called for an increase in the period over which unemployment payouts for older workers will be paid to 24 months.

He was attacked immediately, not only by leading Christian Democrats but by fellow SPD leader Franz Muentefering, the prim, dry and conservative vice-chancellor and top Social Democrat in the government coalition.

"We must not take one step backward in our reform programme," Muentefering insisted, echoing all the anti-labour voices in Germany. Unemployment was decreasing, he claimed, because of just such programmes.

He failed to mention how much of the decrease was due to part-time work, so-called "mini-jobs", dead-end retraining courses and wobbly, bankruptcy-threatened attempts at go-it-alone enterprises.

He obviously feared a collision with the Christian Democratic partners in government which could lead to another election and almost certainly cost him his comfortable post as minister of labour.

He lost the quarrel, Beck won and the Social Democrats will now campaign loudly for the extension, although they may not get far in the event of a conflict with Merkel.

But that does not matter much. The SPD desperately hopes to reactivate its old, near-forgotten image as the advocate of working men and women.

After long opposing it, the SPD is also calling for a 7.50 euro (£5.20) minimum wage, a demand that it cribbed from The Left, which called for an eight euro (£5.60) minimum, and it took the courageous step of calling for a 130-kilometre (80 mph) speed limit on all German highways in the hope of grabbing a few Green votes.

The question is, will voters take this very limited nod to the left seriously or see it as a desperate attempt by the SPD to save itself from a further slide down into a permanent doghouse? How many will realise that the improvement in unemployment pay and the call for a minimum wage are, for the leaders, gestures aimed at stealing the thunder of The Left, which rarely gets a chance to be heard in the media? Will voters punish the SPD for approving the use of German Tornado reconnaissance planes in Afghanistan, resulting in an unknown number of civilian deaths? Or will the voters be put off by a growing smear campaign against The Left leader Oskar Lafontaine and his party colleagues?

Provincial elections in January and February in Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Hesse will supply some answers to these questions.

The Left is hoping to win seats in the provincial parliaments of those provinces for the first time and the SPD leaders will do everything to possible to prevent this.

Whatever the outcome, few will deny that the new unity within Germany's left opposition has altered the country's political landscape for the better.

Victor Grossman is a journalist based in Berlin, This article first appeared in the Morning Star.