Progressive Majority Debate

Targeting Germany’s ‘middle generation’

Struggling in the polls, the social democrats still need to learn the lessons of their defeat in 2013. A new focus on those the party failed to persuade last time may help them to do so.

Who sets the tone for European social democracy? With the Socialist party in France struggling in power, the United Kingdom increasingly looking inwards and eurosceptic, and the threat of ‘Pasokification’ elsewhere, much hope and many expectations among European social democrats lie on the programmatic, strategic and intellectual wisdom of the German Social Democratic party (SPD).

This became evident once more at an international seminar in Berlin in January, organised by Berliner Republik, the Friedrich EbertFoundation (FES) and Policy Network. However, what also became clear is that the gap between those expectations and what the SPD is currently able to deliver is probably greater than at any time since the party won the federal elections in 1998. Its various constraints and lack of self-confidence hinders the SPD from taking on a leadership role inside European social democracy.

The role of the SPD with regard to the crisis in the eurozone is a good example. Many participants expected the SPD to distance itself more openly from Angela Merkel’s politics of austerity and develop a new European approach, including more activist macroeconomic measures. Even though there are vivid debates on the issue among social democratic thinkers and researchers – the FES just awarded the austerity-opponent Mark Blyth a prize for economic publishing – the SPD has no choice but to back the course set by Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, which has spectacular support among German voters and is backed by almost all the media. In the past, the SPD has repeatedly tried to position itself as a ‘voice of reason’ but this gained little resonance with the public. When the SPD cautiously floated eurobonds during the last electoral term, a public outcry followed. An experience, which has led to the understanding that criticism on Merkel´s eurozone politics may only be expressed selectively and timidly.

There is another major constraint narrowing the room for manoeuvre in European politics. As Anke Hassel from the Hertie School of Governance has pointed out, middle-class voters in Germany believe their country’s excellent economic situation to be a result of the painful social and economic reforms, a tight budget policy and stagnating wages. “For the centre left, therefore, there is no narrative or policy space available, which combines European solidarity, an end of austerity policies and sounds promising to German ears,” she suggests. This is especially true with at least three competitors for the traditional social democratic constituency – a CDU/CSU grabbing for the middle ground, a Left party constantly attacking social democrats, and the new populist AfD.

Sadly, instead of building alliances, the new Greek government, with its provocations, attempts at blackmail and its blatant amateurism, has conspired to force the SPD to rally round Merkel. According to a new poll, a majority of Germans (52 per cent) is now against Greece remaining in the eurozone. And 82 per cent doubt that the Greek government will actually implement the promised reforms and austerity measures.

At the conference, there was also the widespread view that the German government should invest more in state infrastructure, in order to strengthen domestic demand and lower the current account imbalances. But as I have explained before, the SPD has committed itself to strict compliance with the constitutional debt brake, constraining all efforts to boost government spending on a large scale. At the beginning of March, the governing coalition agreed on a €15bn investment package for local municipalities and infrastructure. Giving the budget situation, this seems to be the maximum the government is able to spend additionally at the moment.

International observers should also bear in mind that the SPD is deeply unsettled when it comes to domestic politics. While the government is as popular as hardly any government before and the SPD carrying through major political projects such as introducing a national minimum wage and quotas for the number of women on the boards of private companies, the opinion polls still see the party trapped at around 25 per cent. Some in the SPD have started to draw the conclusion that it should look for conflicts with its conservative coalition partners in order to become more visible – a strategy which would, with the next federal elections not due until autumn 2017, only be of benefit to the CDU/CSU.

The real problem for the party is not its work in the coalition, but – as its candidate for chancellor in 2013, Peer Steinbrück, writes in his new book – the inability to draw more strategic conclusions from its defeat in the last federal elections. One of the main outcomes was a lack of support among the generation aged between 25 and 45, as well as among female voters. A recent study on the party’s voter appeal finds that the ‘core brand’ of the SPD is still damaged, with a feeling of “disinterest towards the life reality of the working middle class”.

Against this backdrop, party leaders have announced plans to develop new political offers for the ‘middle generation’ in the ‘rush-hour’ of life. The focus is supposed to lie on people who “work hard and play by the rules”, struggling to reconcile job requirements, family life, and, sometimes, care for the elderly.

Many of those people want the government to lessen social disparities and they are therefore in favour of social democratic achievements such as the minimum wage or lowering the retirement age. However, they do not feel that those measures change their own lives for the better. What this generation wants most is a strengthening of social mobility and improvements in education, so that their kids can live a life as good as their own.

It remains to be seen if the fight for this ‘middle generation’ can be the nucleus for developing more self-esteem and new policy inside the SPD, which may then have lessons for social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe.

Michael Miebach

published on

21 March 2015