Why Germany’s SPD can learn from Corbyn’s Labour Party

Looking to the UK for lessons, Mark Dawson compares the upcoming German federal election dynamics.

15 points behind in the polls, and following a mediocre debate showing, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party has almost been written off. After an early honeymoon, his personal ratings have dropped off the side of a cliff. On the other side of the divide, he faces a far more popular and experienced opponent, with a reputation for strength and stability. A boring, eventless election is expected in which voters are sure to stick to the status quo. The chances for a left-wing comeback are slim to non-existent.

This could be Germany in September 2017, but it was also the UK before its election campaign earlier this year. The position faced by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, at the start of that campaign was even worse than that of Martin Schulz today. Yet, in less than a month, he pushed his party from the brink of electoral oblivion to the edge of government. How did he do it? Corbyn’s election campaign may be the most extraordinary electoral comeback for the left of the last decades. If the SPD is still serious about winning the 2017 federal election, they need to take Labour’s story seriously.

How would Jeremy Corbyn have campaigned against Angela Merkel? In the UK campaign, Corbyn used his first moments of exposure to the spotlight of real campaigning to present his true self. Here was a man comfortable in his own skin. He wasn’t someone pretending to like pop music: his interests were gardening, animal welfare and manhole covers. This is the part of the campaign Mr Schulz got right. Voters look for authenticity in their politicians – it is not just important what they say; but that they mean it. By presenting himself as a simple book-seller, with a troubled back-story, Mr. Schulz, like Mr. Corbyn, gained an audience with the public.

The problem is the next step. As Mr. Corbyn realized, personality only takes you so far. Having established his credentials as an honest policy wonk, Labour put policy at the centre of its campaign. To Theresa May’s empty catchphrases and pictures of herself on billboards looking prime ministerial, they relentlessly focused on concrete problems: housing, inequality, lending, homelessness, and student debt. To the Prime Minister’s impression of substance, Mr. Corbyn offered what the public saw as real substance in the form of a detailed manifesto. He presented his personality through policy – elect me, and I will lead through ideas and not just slogans.

Wherever possible, he highlighted differences between the government’s policies and his own. These differences were not just about the implementation of policies (i.e. was the government managing affairs competently?) but about their content. As Mrs. May attempted to frame the election in terms of competence, the Labour leader insisted the election was about an alternative country: one in which entrenched inequality would be challenged. A vote for Mr. Corbyn in this sense was presented as a vote for a new beginning (one where, to paraphrase one of Mr. Schulz’s more effective lines in a recent debate, Britain’s problems would not just be ‘managed’, but overcome). Progressive voters were given a reason to come out and vote.

It is interesting that in this election, the phrase ‘Keine Lust auf Weiterso!’ (No more business as usual!) emblazons the billboards of Die Linke: for any opposition party seeking to form government, this must be the central message. While the SPD has spent the past term in government, Mr. Schulz was not part of it, presenting an opportunity to cast himself as a break with the recent past. For Mr. Corbyn, this meant being willing to critique and not just defend Labour’s prior record in government (showing, particularly to disillusioned young voters, how his government would be different). Honest engagement with young voters was key – for all Mr. Schulz’s struggles with this group, Mr. Corbyn (and his American political cousin, Bernie Sanders) have shown that age is no barrier to mobilizing the young. To do so, however, political leaders need to channel the authenticity and appetite for change they crave.

In the UK, once the polls started to gradually shift, the election gained a dynamic of its own. When this occurs, an opposition leader can benefit precisely from the perceptions of boredom and inevitability that make a challenge to the governing party so difficult. In any election, the media want to report interesting stories. Once the gap between Labour and Conservative began to close, Mr. Corbyn became the story of the election. Every mild mis-step by the Conservatives (and there were many) was no longer a strategic error, but a sign of a ‘campaign in meltdown’. For an opposition leader perceived as unelectable, the shift in the media narrative quickly broke the un-electability spell: voters were ready to take Labour seriously again. Labour in turn was ready to target those voters with campaign stunts and targeted social media messages. It need only take a small shift to turn the dynamic of an otherwise uneventful election on its head.

Britain is not Germany. For one thing, Brexit and the peculiarities of the UK electoral system certainly had an effect on the outcome. The UK public was in a sufficiently unstable mood to quickly shift towards Labour once the Conservative campaign began to disintegrate. In the end, Mrs. May still emerged with more seats. Mr. Corbyn’s radicalism, however, changed UK politics for a good. In an age where centrist politicians, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron, seem on the ascendancy, Mr. Corbyn has shown that the message of the traditional left can still resonate with the broader public when presented with force and conviction. The SPD should heed Labour’s lesson.

A version of this article was originally published by Zeit Online on 13 September, 2017. 

More about Mark Dawson

  • Mark Dawson , Professor of European Law and Governance