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  1. Editor’s Note
1 March 2023

What Keir Starmer has learnt from the return of the German Social Democrats

To win back Red Wall voters, Labour needs a single word to define the party and its purpose. That word could be “respect”.

By Jason Cowley

On a recent trip to Berlin, I took part in a round-table discussion on the future of the centre-left organised by my colleague Jeremy Cliffe in association with Das Progressive Zentrum, a non-aligned think tank. The participants included senior figures from the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) as well as Claire Ainsley, Keir Starmer’s former director of policy.

What are the lessons for Labour, so close to power now, from the return of the SPD, the dominant force in Germany’s three-party governing coalition? For a start, and most obviously, the party of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt remains in decline. At the 2021 federal election, the SPD won only 25.7 per cent of the vote compared to 24.1 per cent for the CDU/CSU centre-right and 10.3 per cent for the far-right Alternative for Germany. I was told by worried advisers to Chancellor Olaf Scholz that the SPD is unpopular with younger, college-educated, liberal voters in the cities (they prefer the Greens) and with migrant communities.

[See also: Why the fall of Nicola Sturgeon offers little reason for unionist triumphalism]

Labour has problems but not these; like the US Democrats it is now the party of choice of liberal professionals in the multiracial English cities and it has resilient support among minority groups. The English and Scottish Greens are not a serious threat because, in their uncompromising attitudes, they’re closer to Corbynites. The pragmatic wing of the once hard-edged German Greens is represented by Robert Habeck (Scholz’s vice-chancellor) and Annalena Baerbock (foreign affairs), and they’re more like Blairites. Baerbock supports higher defence spending and was a foreign policy hawk long before Putin’s war in Ukraine.

[See also: What Germany gets wrong]

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Scholz, formerly finance minister and vice-chancellor in Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition, resembles Starmer in some ways. He’s moderate, unglamorous, cautious, shrewd. Both men are lawyers – ideal preparation for a politician, as Max Weber put it in his celebrated lecture “Politics as a Vocation”. Scholz was once on the radical left – as Starmer was – before beginning his long journey to what the economist Paul Collier calls the hard centre.

The most obvious difference between Starmer and Scholz is that the German chancellor is a hardened career politician. A vice-president of the International Union of Socialist Youth in the late 1980s, he was first elected to the Bundestag in 1998. Starmer is an outsider from what George Osborne calls “the guild” of professional politicians. Some shadow cabinet members used to say to me that he had “no politics” and that he didn’t know “how to do politics”. Scholz, a veteran deal-maker, certainly knows how to do politics. “He’s Angela Merkel but with a plan,” a close aide told me.

From the start of his leadership, Starmer also had a plan, however improbable – to become prime minister within five years. “I’ve got to do Kinnock and Blair’s job in one term,” he told friends.

By which he meant, I think, that first he had to recapture the party from the left, reform and reposition it, prepare for power and then win. The only person back then who seemed to believe achieving this was possible was Morgan McSweeney, chief power broker in Starmer’s team.

So far Starmer has played the role of Kinnock at accelerated speed, especially in repulsing the left, but can he do the Blair bit? Can he win in a country that turns to Labour very reluctantly? In 2019 the Johnson Conservatives had an opportunity to realign English politics and create a new cross-class coalition in the Brexit era. That opportunity was squandered. Is Labour merely the beneficiary of Tory misrule or, through its integrity and force of ideas, has it earned the renewed respect of an electorate seeking protection and security in this age of disorder?

[See also: Germany has become the roadblock at the heart of Europe]

In a speech on 23 February Starmer outlined his five “national missions” – which he has since elaborated on in an essay for the New Statesman. They were solid enough, but some of the language was desiccated. The SPD has a national mission: to lead Germany’s transition to a carbon-neutral future. The coalition’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democrats, calls renewables “freedom energy”. But during the election campaign Scholz didn’t speak like this or in abstractions about green new deals and “the highest sustained growth in the G7”. He spoke about respect. After the SPD’s defeat in 2017, Scholz read widely – Michael Sandel on the failures of meritocracy, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims – and reflected on why social democrats had been losing support among working-class communities. What didn’t they understand? Why did so many voters feel abandoned or disrespected by those who purported to represent them?

Respect is the most important word in the Scholz lexicon; significantly, the Labour leader uses it when writing about his father in his essay on page 22. In October last year the German coalition honoured an SPD election pledge to raise the minimum wage by 14.8 per cent to €12 an hour because, Scholz said, it was “a matter of respect for the achievements of employees”.

This was a signalling event: the SPD-led coalition is determined to “modernise” Germany’s economy, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, and achieve climate neutrality by the middle of the century. Immense plans! But the SPD will not abandon the working class along the way. “The respect agenda legitimises the modernisation and transformation,” the Scholz aide told me.

Back in Britain, Keir Starmer is searching for what might become Labour’s “signalling event”. What he needs ideally, as well as five missions, is one word to define the party and its purpose as it seeks to win back Red Wall voters and those in neglected towns, such as Harlow in Essex, where I grew up. Will that word be “respect” – a reimagination of the Orwellian ideal of common decency?

[See also: Can Keir Starmer’s vision of the great “unbinding” of Britain save the Union?]

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission