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Germany’s SPD may have signed its death warrant

Another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats could condemn Germany’s Social Democrats to inexorable decline. 

A spectre is haunting Europe’s social democrats: the spectre of Pasokification. The term was coined in reference to Greece’s once hegemonic Pasok, which was reduced from 160 seats in 2009 (making it the largest party) to just 13 in 2015 (putting it in sixth place).

In the years since, other centre-left outfits have contracted this possibly terminal disease. In France, the incumbent Socialist Party polled a mere 6.4 per cent in the 2017 presidential election - its worst-ever result - and won just 30 seats in the National Assembly (down from 280). In the Netherlands, the Dutch Labour Party was reduced to 5.7 per cent in the same year (a fifth of its previous vote). And in Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the grandfather of the European centre-left, achieved a new nadir in last September’s election, winning just 20.5 per cent of the vote and 153 seats.

These electoral humblings share common features: the punishment of social democrats for imposing or enabling austerity and privatisation; the defection of socially conservative voters to far-right nationalist parties (such as Alternative for Germany) ; and the loss of supporters to left-wing alternatives (Greece’s Syriza, France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Germany’s Left Party and the Dutch Socialist Party).

A poll earlier this week put the SPD on just 17 per cent, 13 points behind Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and just two ahead of the far-right AfD.

In spite of this, the Social Democrat leadership this week agreed a new “grand coalition” (or “GroKo”) deal with Merkel. Such is the German Chancellor’s weakness (after the longest period without a government since the Second World War) that she was forced to award the SPD the posts of finance minister and foreign minister. But Merkel’s policy concessions were more modest: tougher controls on temporary work contracts (firms with fewer than 250 staff will only be to hire five workers on these terms) and minor reform of the private health system (an SPD demand to abolish private insurance was rejected).

At first sight, then, the SPD appears to have signed an electoral death warrant. Rather then renewing itself in opposition, it has chosen to again prop up the Christian Democrats. The Left Party and the Alternative for Germany will be further empowered to position themselves as anti-establishment outsiders.

One can cite Merkel herself on this point. In 2010, when David Cameron inquired as to the merits of coalitions, she replied: “The little party always gets smashed!” On both counts, Merkel was proved right. Germany’s Free Democrats (the CDU’s partner from 2009-13) and Britain’s Liberal Democrats were indeed smashed. 

The prospect of a similar fate for the SPD may yet persuade its 464,000 members to veto the deal later this month. The party’s youth wing, the Young Socialists, are running a spirited campaign against another grand coalition.

Until the 2017 general election, Britain’s own Labour Party was displaying symptoms of Pasokification. Having won just 30.4 per cent of the vote in 2015 (its third-worst share since 1923), it was marooned in the 20s. But by achieving the largest increase in the party’s vote since 1945 and its highest share (40.0 per cent) since 2001, Corbyn reversed inexorable decline.

In other major European states, the left’s resurgence has occurred outside of traditional social democratic parties. In the UK, by contrast, Corbyn led an internal revolution within one. Whether any other leader could have averted Pasokification is a subject for Corbyn's parliamentary opponents to ponder.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.