A Letter from Our New Zealand Correspondent
Recently the FT carried a long piece in its Weekend edition (How social democracy lost its way: a report from Germany) on the condition of the German Social Democrats (SPD). By the paper’s Berlin correspondent Tobias Buck, it charted a story of remarkable decline. At the general election of a year ago
“the banner-carrier of the German left for more than a century, had lost more than 1.7 million votes. Its share of the vote had plummeted to 20.5 per cent, the party’s worst result since the creation of the federal republic in 1949 …”
It has however been a long, relentless decline: “With one exception, the party has lost votes at every general election going back 20 years. Since 1998, it has shed half its electorate, and there is no sign the decline has stopped.”
In state elections in Bavaria and Hesse in recent weeks the rot has been confirmed.
What makes it all so much worse for the party is that 1998 was a highpoint: “… when Gerhard Schröder defeated Helmut Kohl in a landmark election that ushered in the first coalition government at the federal level between the Social Democrats and the Green party. The new chancellor – confident, ambitious, clever – was hailed as a breath of fresh air after 16 years of CDU government.”
In truth social democracy is everywhere today at sixes and sevens. As Madawc Williams repeatedly makes the point ‘we’ or ‘progressives’ (wherever ‘we’ are) have won (more or less) on the social and personal agenda but have lost (pretty much entirely) on the economic front. The most media-spectacular example of all of this is probably Ireland, which has imploded from being coherent-Catholic to being almost inchoate hedonistic-liberal socially and in the economic arena, through the IDA the engine is now a model of America’s version of global-capitalist accumulation. In the course of this the Irish Labour Party has all but disappeared (a fate shared with the French Socialists).
In a New York Times Op Ed (What’s Wrong with German Social Democrats?) a German commentator Jochen Bittner recently covered much the same ground as Buck. He opined inter alia “Part of the party’s problem is that Ms. Merkel’s conservatives have co-opted many of the center-left’s ideas, from the introduction of the minimum wage to the establishment of same-sex marriage, and in doing so both embraced and suffocated the Social Democrats.”
But, Bittner also opines, “… there’s another, self-inflicted reason for the malaise … the Social Democrats have shifted to the right economically, but … to the left culturally. This may be fine for the country’s urban upper classes, but it leaves most German voters confused about the party’s appeal…”
New Zealand tells much the same story. Yes there is currently a Labour-led government. New Zealand Labour is (let us call it) a social democratic party in the nineteenth century European mould. This is a party rooted in a class history, organically connected with working class struggles to achieve the right to organise in the workplace, to bargain and advance collectively, to ultimately aspire to enter the parliamentary party-political arena. It is rooted in the mines of Westland on South Island (with their largely Irish Catholic workforces); on the waterfronts of Auckland and Wellington (again significantly Irish); in manufacturing and its growth. It is also something else: a party that achieved its political highpoints (in the 1930s and 1980s) inspired by a concept of society, of social advance and citizenship: in the broadest sense collectivist.
Reverting to Germany and the SPD, Tobias Buck reports his conversations with the leader of the youth wing of the SPD, Kevin Kühnert: “Since the mid-1990s, we have seen the rise of an ideology – not just in Germany but across Europe – that is a radical departure from the classic Social Democratic narrative, which is built around the welfare state that takes care of people.”
And then, somewhere around 25/30 years ago, “Suddenly, the message was that people should take care of themselves, that markets can do things better than the state. We privatised, we deregulated the labour market, we abandoned rural areas. All that contradicts what the SPD always stood for.”
As Buck writes quoting Kühnert, ‘the party lost credibility with those “for whom the promise of social advancement has not been fulfilled”.
“For the first time in many years we have a young generation where many sense that they will not automatically be able to live better than their parents. People on low salaries have seen their wages stagnate, or even fall. They can afford less than they could at the end of the 1990s. I don’t need to have a big macroeconomic debate with them: they know they do not belong to society’s winners.”’
Like the SPD New Zealand Labour in many ways is stranded – as indeed are their British and other European counterparts. They are uprooted, without a compass, dare one say a proper purpose.
In the German case, quoting Jochen Bittner in the NYT, “… the SPD has ignored an issue that a center-left party, born of the labor movement, should be eager to embrace. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy and Europe’s richest country, is a prosperous place — but one riven by inequality and social injustice.
“ … the drop of unemployment in Germany came at a price: the emergence of a new lower class, the so-called precariat — the working poor, or, as you might call them, the subsistence laborers — who find it nearly impossible to accumulate wealth. One million people in Germany are employed in the gig economy — “Leiharbeiter,” in German — who do only temporary work without protection against dismissal. More than three million more Germans have only temporary work contracts, with only mild protections.
It is much the same in New Zealand. Employers have, literally, managed in swathes of the economy to turn once upon a time employees into contractors and sub-contractors, naked of any protections, holiday and sick pay – and massively restricted in their collective bargaining rights, reduced to precariat conditions.
Those who have managed to hold onto their employee status are in thousands of cases forced into split shifts, the end of the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week. This devalues the statutory hourly wage. It is straight out of Capital.
One thing that occurs to me about all of this: it is that modern social democracy has been diverted into at least one wrong path, identity politics. In the words of the American academic Mark Lilla (discussing the decline of the Democrats in the US), politics has come to be “dominated by two ideologies that encourage and even celebrate the unmaking of citizens. On the right, an ideology that questions the existence of a common good and denies our obligation to help fellow citizens, through government action if necessary. On the left, an ideology institutionalised in colleges and universities that fetishises our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption, and casts a shadow of suspicion over any invocation of a universal democratic we.”
The contemporary progressivist agenda of identity politics has no place in socialism or social democracy. In a sense we need to become conservatives, to become a voice for old values and ambitions such as social welfare, collectivism, membership restricting anti-social hours, holiday rights and so on – and class and its political voice.
Merkel’s withdrawal is unlikely to breathe SPD renewal.
There is also another need: to abandon all commitment to the idea of the State as in some way akin to, an aggregate of households and bound by the spending rules and the monetary constraints of households.
But that’s another story, maybe for next month.