It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this weekend’s results for German politics. A relatively unknown left-wing duo has triumphed in a one member one vote election for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the country’s oldest party.
Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans didn’t defeat an also-ran field, either. They overcame none less than Olaf Scholz, the current federal finance minister and vice chancellor. By voting for change, the SPD’s membership has dashed the predictions (and barely-concealed preference) of much of Germany’s mainstream media.
Instead, Esken and Walter-Borjans’ support came from hundreds of thousands of grassroots members – and from millions outside the SPD, looking in, longing for change. Whether the millions were German climate strikers, or left-wing activists or disillusioned workers, this is a victory that sounds a note of hope not just for the SPD, but Germany and Europe too.
It could mean the end of the humiliating grand coalition with the conservatives, under which the SPD has enabled the deadening grip of austerity to tighten across Germany and Europe. It could also mean the end of inaction on climate catastrophe and a genuine break with the leaden ‘Alternativlosigkeit’ (There Is No Alternative) of the Merkel years
If the victory sounds like a repeat from the Corbyn playbook that’s because the similarities are clear. The fragmented German left has been looking longingly at Labour as one of the few examples of political renewal and resurgence in a continent where other parties of the left are dying on their feet.
In NoGroKo eV – the SPD grassroots campaign against yet another grand coalition – we’ve long been campaigning for more direct democracy, and specifically an OMOV leadership election. This, we always felt, was the key to rejuvenating the party.
And rejuvenation is bitterly needed. Since Schröder’s defeat in 2005, and with every subsequent humiliation since, the SPD establishment has sworn to ‘renew itself’. So often, indeed, that the phrase has become a joke.
The satirist Jan Böhmermann even threw his own hat into the ring for the SPD leadership with the mischievous title ‘#Neustart19’ (New Start ’19). But with elevation into the party hierarchy predicated on approval for the Schröder ‘reforms,’ neither the cardinal sin nor the cardinal sinners that landed the SPD in this mess were ever up for debate.
Even today, there are still those who allege that Labour’s turn to the left is an electoral liability. While a common trope in Britain’s media class, it’s an assertion that sounds mildly ridiculous when coming from self-professed Europhiles who seem astonishingly ignorant of the fate of Labour’s sister parties in Europe.
In 1998, the German SPD entered government under Schröder with 40% of the vote. Today, polls have it scraping along at somewhere between 13 and 15%. In other countries, of course, it is worse – see the Parti Socialiste in France, which failed to turn the corner before being smashed in the last presidential elections and is now falling apart entirely.
The death of the centre-left should fill no one with joy: rather than propelling new left-wing parties or coalitions to the fore, it has seen progressive majorities shrink, with more and more voters deserting to the ascendent authoritarian, xenophobic and unscrupulously lying Right who are in power in Britain and across much of the continent.
But now, and not a moment too soon, the SPD grassroots appear to have saved their party – and by extension Germany and possibly even Europe – by electing a left-wing duo to its leadership. The vote sets the SPD on a new course that for the first time ever breaks with the disastrous legacy of the last majority SPD government of Gerhard Schröder.
Embracing the race-to-the-bottom logic of globalisation, Schröder eagerly slashed welfare benefits, employment protections and taxes on the rich – throwing millions of Germans into poverty and insecurity, boosting profits for capital, and fundamentally alienating the SPD from its own origins and voter base in the working class.
Scholz, the loser in the leadership contest, ran as the defender of these Schröder ‘reforms’ and the SPD’s multiple grand coalitions with the CDU thereafter. As a young man, he belonged to the so-called Stamokap current, which theorised barely-masked state-enabled monopolies as the last stage of financialised capitalism.
In office, however, he was more recognisable as an agent of these monopolies than a critic, bringing a Goldman Sachs banker into the finance ministry as an adviser and informing his European Union colleagues that he intended to follow the crippling ordoliberal austerity line of his bone-dry predecessor as finance minister, the hawkish conservative Wolfgang Schäuble.
In a time of negative interest rates and a massive long-term deficit in German infrastructure spending, Scholz absurdly clung to the ‘schwarze null’ balanced budget policy forbidding any new public debt. A deeply uncharismatic politician on the best of days, Scholz’s forlorn last-minute attempts to embrace more left positions during the leadership ballot lacked any credibility.
And credibility is precisely what the victors have: both come from outside the party hierarchy, both are able to distance themselves from the bad decisions of previous years. A former delivery driver who did an adult degree and then worked in IT, Saskia Esken has rebelled against the party line on both digital rights and racist immigration laws.
Most scandalously, she’s happy to talk about socialism – a word that the much of German mainstream discredits through its association with the repression and curtailed civic freedoms of the former East Germany.
Norbert Walter-Borjans brings extensive practical knowledge of government as the former finance minister of North Rhine Westfalia, the largest of Germany’s states with a population of 18 million. Incredibly, he came to national prominence in that role by buying stolen CDs listing German tax evaders holding money illegally in Switzerland.
While normal practice for the police and secret services, the idea of paying for tip-offs that might endanger the rich provoked howls of outrage from lobbyists, the right-wing media and much of the German 1%, for whom tax evasion is a gentleman’s sport.
In stark contrast to so many SPD colleagues in government, and with a detailed and masterly grasp of the technicalities, Walter-Borjans backed his tax inspectors to the hilt, faced down the storm and brought €7 billion worth of illegally hidden assets back Germany in next tax revenue. His unwillingness to back down in the case even earned him a particularly British nickname: Robin Hood.
Taking from the rich to give to the poor is precisely what people expect the SPD to do. Walter-Borjans has spent the last year enthusiastically promoting his book in which he takes apart the party’s failure to do so.
In Taxes – the Big Bluff he also savages the pernicious influence of lobbyists and their wilful untruths on political decision-making. His language is generally mild, but the implications of his conclusions are not: unchecked, capital is a threat to any attempt at a level, democratic playing field.
To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, neoliberalism’s greatest achievement was its ideological capture of the parties of the centre-left. But neoliberalism isn’t working. Having promised prosperity and equal opportunity for all, it has proved a motor for obscene inequality, climate catastrophe and now the far-right.
Whatever our background, we can all safely assume that children born today will lead a worse life than we have done. At this moment, a genuine alternative to the status quo is no longer a demand for the radical fringe – but for the mainstream majority.
But for this politics to find expression in our political parties, their structure has to be opened up to democratic input from below. Any institution – parties, nationalised industries, unions – which maintains structures that enable cliques to distribute feudal largesse must be opened up to radical transparency, accountability and direct democracy. The alternative is to stagger on under the weight of the past, and eventually be suffocated by it forever.
For the members of the SPD, this is just the beginning. The vicious counter-attacks from the media and the SPD right have caught many by surprise. But this is the inevitable result of an organised group of political operatives with media contacts losing their grip over their careers.
Take heart, comrades. It’ll get much, much worse. But if you’re upsetting the status quo, it’s a clear sign you’re doing something right. And it is precisely this opposition that will galvanise you into organising and creating your own power – from the bottom up.