Are there lessons for Labour from the SPD’s success in Germany’s general election?

Nick Wright

Official coalition talks finally began in Germany on 21 October, nearly a month after the election. As is the norm, these formal negotiations were preceded by several weeks of preliminary meetings as the potential partners in a “Traffic Light” (or Ampel) coalition of centre-left SPD, centre-right Free Democrats and Greens ascertained whether they shared enough common ground for a successful political collaboration. If all goes to plan, a formal coalition agreement will be in place by the end of November, creating Germany’s first ever three-party federal government. This will be followed by a vote on 6 December to install Olaf Scholz, SPD leader, as Angela Merkel’s successor as chancellor.

Even a few months ago the idea that the SPD would be the largest party in any new government seemed fanciful. In April they were polling at only 15%, third after the Greens on 24% and the CDU/CSU on 26%. Political humiliation was on the cards for Germany’s oldest political party. Fast forward to this September, and the SPD emerged as the largest party with 25.7%, while the CDU/CSU saw their vote share fall from 32.9% in 2017 to just 24.1%. The Greens came third with 14.8%.

Garnering barely over a quarter of the vote may not seem that impressive – after all, in 1998 Gerhard Schröder led the SPD into government with 40.9% of the vote. But this is a political environment that has become increasingly fragmented in the last 20 years – German commentators call it “Dutchification”. So, while the parliamentary arithmetic may be more complex today, it is nevertheless an astounding turnaround given the success of the CDU/CSU over the last 16 years under Merkel.

Given the recent gains for the left across the Nordic countries, and with centre-left parties leading governments in Spain and Italy, it would be tempting to see the SPD’s relative success as further evidence of a renaissance for the left across Europe, giving Keir Starmer cause for optimism here in the UK. However, we need to be careful of extrapolating from this to an electoral victory for Labour in 2023 or 2024.

First, there are big structural differences between Germany and UK that make a Labour win far more challenging, most obviously the contrasting electoral systems. Germany’s proportional system ensures that the Bundestag accurately reflects the vote share of all parties nationally, provided they reach the 5% threshold (or win one of Germany’s 299 constituency seats). While this means it is virtually impossible for a single party to win a majority, it also makes it possible for the SPD to win just 25.7% of the vote and still have the whip-hand in forming the next German government. The UK’s winner-takes-all FPTP system, however, means only local results matter and a strong national showing is largely irrelevant – just ask UKIP, who won more than 12% of the vote in 2015 but had just a single seat in Parliament.

Second, there were a number of specific – and unique – factors that influenced the outcome of this German election. First and foremost was the departure of Angela Merkel as Chancellor. Her announcement in October 2018 that she would be stepping down ensured this election was all about change – and who was best placed to manage it.  For many voters, a key concern was who was best suited to replace her. Merkel’s generally centrist, pragmatic positions and calm, steady, reliability as leader have been hugely reassuring, particularly during the different crises that have buffeted Germany over the last 16 years.  At the same time, other – especially younger – voters saw this election as an opportunity to escape the stasis that has been gripping Germany in recent years, particularly the lack of action on Germany’s infrastructure and technology deficits and in dealing with the climate crisis.

Olaf Scholz was successful in mobilising support amongst the “continuity” group. His slogan “Scholz will sort it” (Scholz packt das an) and his general demeanour during the campaign were deliberately calibrated to seem “Merkel-ish”. He was presented as her natural successor and a safe pair of hands, having been Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister in her last government. So, while many younger voters were attracted by the promises of change made by the Greens and Free Democrats, Scholz was able to attract enough support among older voters to give his party the edge. The big losers, meanwhile, were the CDU/CSU.

Another important contributory factor was the ineptitude of Scholz’s CDU/CSU rival, Armin Laschet. Although an experienced politician, having been Minister-President of Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, since 2017, Laschet’s campaign was uninspiring. It will probably be best remembered for the moment in July when he was caught on camera laughing while the German President was speaking during a sombre visit to a flood-hit town. The effect of the gaffe was similar to Neil Kinnock’s infamous fall on Brighton beach. Had Scholz faced a more competent, inspiring opponent, a very different set of coalition discussions would likely be taking place today.

This being said, there are some commonalities between the SPD and Labour. Both have found themselves struggling in recent years for identity and relevance, while also haemorrhaging electoral support. Both have been competing with ruthlessly efficient centre-right opponents who have seemed unbeatable at times, as well as being willing to steal the left’s policies. And while it would be unwise to draw too close a comparison, there are definite similarities between Scholz and Starmer. Both are serious individuals who balance a lack of charisma with a focus on detail and competence. And although Starmer may not have Scholz’s level of political experience, he does have significant executive experience from his previous legal career.

The SPD built their campaign around Scholz, seeing his “grey” personality as a strength in a year when continuity was a big factor. They were also a party largely unified in their support for their candidate and offering a clear programme that promised carefully calibrated reform focused on social justice. It is safe to assume that Labour will want to highlight Starmer as the antithesis of Johnson – the serious leader ready to clean up after the trivial man. Whether the party will be as united behind him remains to be seen. Certainly, a more focused set of policy offerings will be needed than those presented in 2019.

For Starmer and Labour, though, the nature of the UK voting system will remain the key challenge. The political mountain they must climb is significantly higher than that faced by the SPD. Right now, Labour needs a 15% swing to them and away from the Tories just to have a majority of 1. Perhaps the biggest lesson, therefore, is that Labour needs to embrace voting reform and coalitions if it is to govern again at national level. Packt Starmer das an?

Dr Nick Wright is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Britain in Europe, University of Surrey