This article was published on the Guardian's Comment is Free website

German lessons for Labour

The demise of Germany's left wing reflects an existential crisis across Europe that Labour should be mindful of this week

28 September 2009

The depth of the European left's existential crisis is revealed by the catastrophic defeat of the Social Democrats (SPD) in Germany.

The re-elected chancellor, Angela Merkel, is the new dominating force in Europe. Germany now has a gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, at a time when Germany will have to reconsider its relations with the regime in Iran, which has put gay people to death, as well as other homophobic politics in the Arab world.

The political blunder David Cameron has made in forging an alliance with the homophobic Polish nationalist, Michal Kaminski, will now face scrutiny as Kaminski's party is also notoriously Germanophobe. Merkel has signalled her displeasure at Cameron getting into bed with east European and Baltic extremists by withdrawing the representative of her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), in London. The news was big in Germany but not reported by a British media in thrall to Cameron.

The new Merkel-Westerwelle government in Berlin will have little time for the neo-isolationism of UK Conservatives. That is bad news for Britain if Cameron becomes prime minister but has already been discounted as all European governments, as well as Washington, are coming to terms with Britain's self-marginalisation if William Hague becomes foreign secretary.

The key question is who will Merkel work with? Can President Sarkozy drop his chippy condescension towards her and shape a new Paris-Berlin axis to drive the EU forward? The vote in Germany was in favour of a more not less economic liberalisation, which the Free Democratic party (FDP) – which won 15% of the vote – stood for. The social protectionism of the SPD, the appeal to statist syndicalism of Die Linke and the anti-science emptionalism of the Greens were rejected even if together with the racist right their combined vote was 50%.

But the lessons for the democratic left are grim. The economic crisis and the failure of global banking is not producing a shift to the left. The proportional electoral system in Germany is dividing the left, not forging a common progressive politics.

The SPD's claim to harness green politics failed to convince as Germans know that wind power alone means massive power cuts. The party's finance minister denounced Gordon Brown's "crass Keynesianism" and brought in an amendment to the German constitution imposing balanced budgets as law. The anti-Keynes law was meant to reassure those worried about debt (the German word for debt, schuld, is the same as guilt) but earned the SPD no extra votes.

The SPD has consistently opposed measures aimed at increasing demand by loosening up Germany's economy and labour market, which has remained largely unchanged since the fall of the Berlin wall. Germany insists on its divine right to export but not import. Working class wages were held down as employers and unions collaborated to strengthen the capital base of industrial firms. Workers not unreasonably turned away from supporting the SPD ministers who thus cut their purchasing power.

The German left's crisis joins that in France, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and most of east Europe where the classic 20th century forms of democratic left politics can no longer command electoral majorities. The Spanish socialists have also sunk below the conservative PP in opinion polls for the first time in five years. In Portugal, just, and hopefully in Greece this weekend where a reformist New Pasok is looking good, there are left governments. But the general picture is bleak. The Compass-Guardian view that Labour needs to be more leftwing, as the challenge of the recession brings opportunities for the left, is not happening. Gimmicks like PR and primaries as cure-alls for the left are not bearing fruit.

At Labour's conference this week there is barely a reference to what is happening outside the Westminster bubble packed with its District 9-type prawns which has descended on Brighton. No one would know that a massively significant election had taken place in Europe's biggest country with important implications for both Conservatives and Labour. But the European left as a project for state power is now facing its most testing time since social democratic, socialist and Labour parties were founded more than a century ago.