Some post-Question Time clarifications

For those of you who seem intent on getting the wrong end of the stick . . .

I'm not sure which I enjoyed more – appearing on BBC1's Question Time last night or following the Twittersphere's reaction to it as the show went out at 10.35pm. Once again, it seems, I am the Marmite panellist – people either loved me or hated me. (From the tweets, it seems as if the "lovers" edged out the "haters" – phew!)

And I was amused to get – almost at the same time – tweets/texts/emails of the "We're so proud of you for sticking up for Muslims" variety and tweets/texts/emails of the "You're just an evil extremist Islamist" variety; tweets/texts/emails of the "Great to see an articulate lefty" variety and tweets/texts/emails of the "You're an embarrassment to the left" variety. Hilarious.

Question Time is a fun show to do but I'd be the first to admit that it doesn't lend itself to nuance or depth and doesn't allow panellists enough time to unpack their views and opinions in any detail. There's been some confusion on Twitter, and in the texts and emails, about the various views that I expressed and positions that I took – and, of course, some of the confusion is a result of the deliberate misrepresentation and distortion of my views by my critics on the right. So I thought I'd take this opportunity, like last time, to offer some brief post-QT clarifications:

1) On prisoner voting: I don't support giving every prisoner the right to vote but I am opposed to a blanket ban. It might be considered right, proper and proportionate to strip serious criminals – murderers, rapists, paedophiles, armed robbers, etc – of their right to vote but the vast majority of prisoners in this country are not serious criminals. On what basis can it be said to be proportionate to remove the right to vote from a shoplifter or a drug offender or someone who has breached the terms of their Asbo? And this is not some odd or extreme position. Italy, Malta and Poland, for example, ban only those deemed to have committed serious crimes from exercising their right to vote. In Greece, anyone sentenced to life receives a permanent voting ban. Let's be clear: I'm not advocating giving killers such as John Hirst the right to vote in prison – and nor was the European Court, despite Douglas Murray's factually inaccurate claim to the contrary on the programme last night.

2) On multiculturalism: I didn't equate David Cameron with the EDL or "smear" him, as Tim Montgomerie and others have claimed. I pointed out that the English Defence League and the French National Front welcomed Cameron's remarks (and that even the BNP's Nick Griffin, while also welcoming the comments, pointed out the "provocative" timing of the speech in Munich, given events back home in Luton). Am I expected to ignore their comments? As a member of an ethnic minority, should I not be bothered that far-right racists who wish me and my family harm are claiming the PM's speech – or, at the very minimum, the media spin around it – as a vindication of their views/opinions? Am I supposed to pretend that politicians never "dog-whistle"? (For more on my views on Cameron's speech, see my column in this week's New Statesman.)

As for the "forced marriages" issue, which the oddball right-wing blogger "Archbishop Cranmer" seems to have seized upon in his rambling blog post this morning, I didn't say there weren't any forced marriages in the UK or that forced marriages were a "myth" – I pointed out that it was ridiculous for Murray to pretend (a) that multiculturalism is responsible for forced marriages and (b) that I've yet to come across a single politician, community leader or religious spokesman who defends forced marriages or excuses them on the basis of "multiculturalism". It is just ridiculous and dishonest to make such a claim. "Cranmer", who constructed his entire blog post on the basis of something I didn't say, says my "ignorance is astonishing"; I find his inability to understand simple English "astonishing". He really should pay attention.

3) On Egypt: There is no inconsistency to supporting the popular and peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt while opposing the Anglo-American military intervention in Iraq. Arabs should be allowed to choose their own leaders and decide their own destiny; the west should neither prop up the despotic dictators in the Middle East – as we did with Saddam Hussein (until 1990) and Hosni Mubarak (until last week) – nor set out to remove them through "shock and awe" – as we did in Iraq, without UN backing and with bloody consequences.

4) On the "big society": I was amazed that Francis Maude could pretend that the draconian cuts to spending on charities and voluntary groups could be avoided if councils reduced their "costs" and "overheads". Conservative ministers have made some pretty disingenuous claims in recent weeks but this one takes the biscuit. The fact is that councils, which are having to make unprecedented and front-loaded cuts to their budgets of roughly 27 per cent over the next four years, "made savings of more than £3n between 2005 and 2008 and a further £1.7bn in 2008-2009. In 2009-2010 councils made efficiency savings of more than £4.8m every day." As David Cameron himself admitted, in opposition (on 8 September 2009): "Local government is officially the most efficient part of the public sector." He added: "Councils achieve well in excess of the sector's spending review targets, beating central government savings by a country mile." And much ink has been spilled in the tabloid press about "fat-cat" local council bosses but a "reduction in the chief executive pay bill of 50 per cent would only yield 0.35 per cent of the savings needed to fill the £6.5bn funding gap for 2011-2012, and equates to only 0.05 per cent of total employee expenditure". Bad luck, Francis.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.