Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

What does Hamburg mean for the SPD?

A strong economic platform delivered a resounding victory for the SPD’s Olaf Scholz in Hamburg. Desperately trying to win back frustrated voters from the left looks futile.

The German social democrats started this election year with a landslide victory, winning 48.3% of the vote in the state elections in the city of Hamburg on 20 February – an absolute majority in a five-party system. Frontrunner Olaf Scholz won the election on an explicitly pragmatic and centrist platform.

This resounding victory was swiftly followed by an inner-party dispute over how to interpret the result. Some argued that Hamburg was a special case. No lessons could be drawn from the Christian Democrats being scrapped after ten years in office and the Green party discredited for abandoning the governing coalition. Plus, they argued, the city has only 1.8 million inhabitants and looks back to a long civic and mercantile tradition.

All of this is true. Yet the magnitude of SPD’s victory in Hamburg, especially in comparison with its poor opinion polling nationwide, requires the party to examine the election closely – and to learn from it.

One interesting feature of the campaign was that Scholz, a former labour minister, made an effort to strengthen ties with Hamburg’s entrepreneurs. He caught the CDU on the wrong foot by appointing former shipyard manager and praeses of the mighty Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, Frank Horch, as shadow minister for economic affairs. He advocated deepening the navigational route of the river Elbe – the lifeline of this port city – despite environmental concerns. Furthermore, Scholz declared strict fiscal retrenchment as his primary goal and announced precise quantitative budgetary targets. For the SPD, such strong economic policy is worthy of note. At the same time, he championed a portfolio of realistic social policies; for example, pledging to reduce fees for early-years child care and revitalise social housing.

There is no doubt that this strategy, aimed squarely at the centre of society rather than snatching votes from the left political camp, was a success: 50,000 former Christian Democratic voters turned to the SPD, more than three times as many as came from the Greens, the Liberal Party (FDP) and the Left Party combined. The highest increases were among pensioners, voters with low education and workers. These ‘ordinary people’ know very well that every euro the state distributes needs to be generated beforehand. A dynamic economy and social justice are not mutually exclusive, but depend on each other.

Scholz’s centrist approach differs significantly from the federal party’s course since 2009. Instead of building upon its progressive socio-economic reforms under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the SPD pursued a politics of redemption, hoping a swing to the left would please party members and traditional voters alike.

This helps to explain the SPD’s shortage of politicians with an economic profile. The only social democratic entrepreneur in the former Bundestag, Klaas Hübner, was given a hopeless place on his state party list in 2009 – because of his distinctly pragmatic position, not least on the economy. Another problem is that the SPD often comes across as a defender of traditional industries, rather than a promoter of new economic enterprise from which new jobs will emerge (and where a lot of political work concerning labour conditions and social security is still to be done). Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s sophisticated ‘Germany plan’ on how to develop new jobs in green technologies, creative industries and health care, which he introduced during the election campaign 2009, unfortunately sank into obscurity soon after.

The SPD would do well to take a leaf out of Olaf Scholz’s book. The Hamburg election has shown that the Left Party is stable. Desperately trying to win back frustrated voters from the left is futile. People assign the SPD the highest competencies of all parties in social affairs; economic issues such as budgetary discipline, new growth and modern infrastructure must now follow.

Another detail of the Hamburg election supports this argument: unexpectedly, the liberal FDP made it into the city parliament, partly because its top candidate pleaded for a coalition with the SPD – an alliance categorically ruled out by party leaders on a federal level. If the FPD follows the Hamburg example and opens up towards social-liberal ideas, a ‘traffic light’ coalition between the FDP, the Green Party and a moderate SPD could become a realistic option.

This text was pubslished  originally as a contribution to the State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network’s Social Democracy Observatory, and can be found here.