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Home Opinion Migrant flows make social democracy as relevant as ever
State of the Left - Germany

Migrant flows make social democracy as relevant as ever

Michael Miebach - 16 September 2015

If it combines the principles of optimism and realism, the SPD is well-placed to manage the biggest challenge to the country since reunification

German social democrats are watching the Corbynisation of the Labour party with a mixture of astonishment and trepidation. Could such a sudden radical left turnaround of the German Social Democrats (SPD) be conceivable? A snap first assessment arrives at a ‘no’,  as the structural environment in which the SPD operates is markedly different. Corbynmania in the Labour party has taken hold as  the first-past-the-post voting system in the UK makes the foundation of new parties unattractive. In Germany, Corbyn-style ideas are captured by the Left party and – in some policy areas – the Greens, with both parties attracting people who regard German social democracy as too ‘mainstream’. Also, the SPD is part of the government both on federal level and in 14 of the 16 powerful Bundesländer. This has a disciplinary effect on the SPD: elections in the Länder take place on average three times per year.

But what can be said is that the strong and well-organised left faction in the SPD might feel elevated by pure-water leftwing candidates such as Jeremy Corbyn or the socialist candidate Bernie Sanders in the US. Just a couple of days ago, the left faction published a paper in which they call for “a fair distribution of wealth, more public investment”, and for the SPD to “show a clear social profile”. According to them, “economic competence and redistributive competence belong together inextricably”.

The paper was regarded as a frontal attack on party leader Sigmar Gabriel´s attempts to draw lessons from the unsuccessful election campaign 2013 and to position the SPD further to the centre. Gabriel had recently demanded his party focus more strongly on the “everyday worries” of citizens, while rejecting claims for “higher debt or higher taxes”. He also called for the party to put the conservative issue of domestic security at the heart of the social democratic programme.

The debate about the general course of the party will intensify in the run-up to the party congress in December where Gabriel needs to be reconfirmed as party chairman. He will have to resist Corbynist pressures and unite the SPD for another campaign against the popular Angela Merkel. If in 2017 the party achieves the third bad result in a row, this would probably weaken its outlook for years to come.

Acting as a team will be especially important against the backdrop of the refugee crisis with more than 800,000 people expected to seek shelter in Germany – the biggest challenge to the country since reunification. As Chancellor Angela Merkel rightly said, the influx of refugees will change the country – “hopefully in a positive way”.

The parties will have to adapt to the new situation quickly. For the SPD, it will be crucial to find the balance between articulating the security needs of the citizens and at the same time encompassing and channelling the enormous solidarity among civil society and stressing the opportunities for a country with a rapidly ageing population.

So far, Sigmar Gabriel, who called for “optimism and realism”, has dealt with the new circumstances very well. He showed support for the helpers on the ground and condemned rightwing violence against refugees much earlier than Angela Merkel, while at the same time pushing the government to agree on rapid support measures. It is a good sign that he met only little resistance inside the party when he agreed on restrictive measures such as turning money payments for the refugees into benefits in kind and qualifying additional countries as “safe third countries”. At this point, it proves advantageous for the SPD that social democrats are in power on many different state levels where they face reality and have to take responsible decisions – and may less likely fall for the simple answers of a Jeremy Corbyn.

On the other hand, the new situation has revealed major differences between the CDU and her much more populist sister party CSU, which strongly criticised Merkel´s decision to let thousands of unregistered refugees from Hungary enter Germany. Also, it puts cornerstones of conservative policymaking under threat. For example, sooner or later, the additional billions of euros that need to be made available for dealing with the migrant challenge will make it inevitable to either increase taxes or public debt. In the past, the conservatives have ruled out both measures categorically. The SPD would be well advised to avoid talking about taxes or debt publicly, instead letting the conservative finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble deliver the bad news.

The CDU/CSU, which denied until recently that Germany is an Einwanderungsland (an immigration country) also lags behind with regard to the question of whether an ‘immigration law’ is needed. By contrast, the head of the SPD parliamentary group Thomas Oppermann has long proposed such a law in order to steer and regulate labour migration, kicking off a nationwide debate. 

While the conservatives might be pushed on the defensive, the new circumstances may minimise disputes between the SPD party wings, as traditional dividing lines become less relevant. There will simply not be much space for redistribution and investments on large scale, and taxes may have to be increased anyway as outlined above. Thus, a Corbynisation of the German SPD has become more unlikely.

Meanwhile, what could also play into the hands of the SPD is that the migrant flows make core social democratic issues even more relevant than before. Education, integration, the labour market, vocational training, health – it is these policy areas which will decide about the future of the immigration country Germany. In all of these areas, the SPD is considered to be strong and trustworthy.

There is no better party in Germany to meet the challenges of these new hard times.

Michael Miebach is a political scientist and senior editor of the Berliner Republik, a leading German political journal. He is also deputy chair of the progressive thinktank Das Progressive Zentrum

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics


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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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