A lesson from Germany

Across Europe, parties of the left are replacing their leaders in a desperate attempt to regain lost

In a fit of despair at its slumping popularity, the main centre-left party in government decided to replace its burly party leader, whose poll ratings hovered around 25 per cent. A cerebral member of cabinet - best known as a staffer for the previous leader, a proven election-winner - was chosen in his place. The party in question is Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), whose leader, Kurt Beck, has just been replaced by the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

German papers are hailing the "re-Schröderisation" of the SPD: Steinmeier was a close aide of Gerhard Schröder as regional prime minister of Hanover in the 1990s and then as chief of staff between 1998 and 2005, when Schröder was chancellor. If he beats Angela Merkel in the September 2009 elections, it will be the first time that Steinmeier has been elected into office by German voters.

The Austrian Socialists did something similar in the summer. They narrowly won an election last November but their new chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, failed to inspire, so the party replaced him and called early elections, due to be held on 28 September. But the Socialists cannot get above 30 per cent of voting intentions despite changing their leader. The Austrian parliamentary left is in no better shape than the German Social Democrats.

The Sturm und Drang of Labour's sister parties in Germany and Austria reflect the wider mal aise of the democratic left in Europe: a sapping of will, an absence of ideology, and a lack of flair, style and risk-taking. The 20th-century European left is dying and a 21st-century democratic left cannot be born. Morbid symptoms are more in evidence than the confidence to show that progressive reformist politics can renew itself in the face of global dislocations.

German social democracy has many simila rities to Labour's. It has always compromised with market economics, summed up by Willy Brandt's phrase: "As much market as possible, as much regulation as necessary." It has also been strongly Atlanticist - Brandt was shouted down by the London left as a running dog of American imperialism when he tried to speak at Friends Meeting House in the early 1960s.

But that was the 20th century. Over the past decade, trade union membership in Germany has declined more than in Britain, and its unions seem incapable of reinventing themselves and organising the new proletariat - non-Germans, female part-timers and the self-employed. The SPD's membership fell this summer below that of the conservative CDU for the first time since 1950. Germany has politicians prepared to preach eloquently against George W Bush or in favour of a federal Europe, but the SPD has failed to find the language and ideas to inspire, leaving Europe without its social-democratic ballast.

Personality contests

The French left is unlikely to take up the reins: it has given up thinking and replaced politics with personality contests. At their November congress in Rheims, where French kings were once crowned, the Socialists must choose a new leader. Mitterrand-era men and women in their late fifties are proclaiming, "Moi, moi, moi," as they seek support from the dwindling group of activ ists who elect the party leaders.

Personality is important. Steinmeier is popular in Germany. But delivering Germany's cautious foreign policy, with its semi-neutralist moralising tone, is not the same as making tough decisions on nuclear power or cutting tax breaks for commuters, and thereby hitting entrenched vested interests. Perhaps the yet-to-be-elected Steinmeier will take risks and tell the truth to the power-holders in his party and the unions, but continuing immobilism is more likely.

Are there lessons for Labour to learn from the turmoil on the European democratic left? One common strand appears to be the cost of giving up political education as part of the centre left's work. Political leaders who cannot explain the world to their own followers do not create followers who can then explain the world to voters. Britain's Electoral Commission has an annual bonanza of £27m of taxpayers' money, yet there is not a single MP or councillor who knows what this money is spent on. Giving that cash to political parties for policy education would be a start, but after 11 years in power Labour has still not understood that democracy has to be paid for by the democracy, not by outside funders.

As it has de-ideologised itself, the European left has fallen victim to the politics of Heat and Hello! - an obsession with the who rather than the what and why of power. In replacing their leader, the German Social Democrats have shown a ruthlessness about wanting to win next year. But unless Steinmeier takes risks and challenges them to become something different, the future of central European social democracy remains bleak.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former minister for Europe (2002-2005)