An interesting map appeared in The Guardian’s G2 on Friday 29 July showing the political colour of governments across Europe over successive decades. In what was once a divided continent separated by an Iron Curtain isolating authoritarian regimes from the rest of us, the continent is now all but unified.
The trouble is that the unifying colour is blue. Very blue. And with Spain’s ruling Socialist Party in trouble and facing an election later this year, that sea of blue may yet widen.
The Guardian author was unsure what to make of this trend, but noted correctly that the maps looked pretty. Indeed they do. But aesthetics aside there is an obvious common dilemma faced by European parties of the centre-left. We’ve all lost, or are in the process of losing, power.
In the debates that have been had on these pages and elsewhere in the aftermath of the General Election much has been made of the directionthat the Labour Party should follow. Some of these inspirations drawon ideas from the recent as well as not-so-recent past. Whether something Old, New or Blue, most of these ideas are rooted firmly within British domestic politics. Perhaps it’s time we threw something Borrowed into the mix.
In the UK, our experience of coalition politics is virtually non-existent. Labour is doing a good job at holding the government to account, but in reality everyone (the Government included of course) is making it up as they go along. In contrast, Labour’s sister party in Germany, the Social Democrats (SPD), have lived with the reality of coalition politics for the past six decades. To this end the SPD is currently looking at how to position themselves for new alliances to form a government, while also trying to regain strength on their own
In one of those coincidences of history, it also happens that the ruling German CDU/CSU & FDP coalition (“Schwarz-Gelb”) mirrors our own governing ConDem coalition. We should not overlook this historical alignment as a way of learning more about what works, and what doesn’t.
Labour and the SPD are historically in the same position now: chucked out of power only some months ago, looking for new inspiration, as voters search for an alternative to the same old centre-right policies. It is striking, for example, that Peter Hain’s “Refounding Labour” document and the SPD’s draft party reform look virtually similar – from the analysis of the task ahead down to the remedies. And both parties now look at where they succeeded in government – and where we should have done better: issues like quality of life as opposed to focus on pure growth, light vs. right financial regulation and how to deal with budget deficits. Labour and the SPD copy each other all the time (often unwittingly) – it’s time that we speak more to each other to develop even better ideas together.
There’s nothing revolutionary here: the history of the Labour movements in both Germany and Britain is also more closely aligned than people might think. In the 19th Century the Social Democrats provided inspiration for many of the early groups that later coalesced to form the Labour Party we know today. The relationships of Willy Brandt and Harold Wilson, right up to Schröder and Blair’s Third Way /Neue Mitte project paint a picture of two parties with similar ideals and similar challenges – notwithstanding the occasional squabble about who are the truer Social Democrats.
It is with this relationship in mind, and the need to explore ideas between us that we are forming a new group – Labour Friends of Germany – to put the structures in place that will share ideas, activists and ultimately resources between Labour and the SPD.
To launch Labour Friends of Germany, the Shadow Europe Minister, Wayne David, has kindly agreed to host a drinks reception at the House of Commons on 12th September. There will be guests from the Bundestag alongside Labour activists and UK-based members of the SPD. If you would like to come along to this welcome event, and you would like to get involved in strengthening the relationship between the two parties, do please get in touch at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you there – bis dann!
Convenor of Labour Friends of Germany
Chair of SPD Group in London
Former Chair of SPD Group in London
Member of Labour Movement for Europe Executive