Derek Scally: German left dying of shame over working class

Far right mopping up votes as left drifts from traditional base, says SPD ex-leader

Former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel and CDU leader Angela Merkel. “Across western and northern Europe traditionally left-wing working-class voters are furious at Europe’s neo-liberal ‘anything goes’ status quo.” Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel and CDU leader Angela Merkel. “Across western and northern Europe traditionally left-wing working-class voters are furious at Europe’s neo-liberal ‘anything goes’ status quo.” Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

 

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) will spend their Christmas break gnawing over a particularly juicy dilemma: should they, or should they not, enter a third administration with Angela Merkel and her Christian democrat CDU.

One half of the party favours power: anxious to exploit the weakened chancellor’s lack of coalition options to ram through centre-left policy and, this half of the party hopes, thereby boost flagging SPD support.

The other camp, meanwhile, wants to regroup in opposition and warns that following two electoral disasters after sharing power with Merkel, next time around for the SPD could end in a kiss of death from voters.

It was into this heated discussion last weekend that former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel lobbed a grenade. That decision was immaterial, he wrote in Der Spiegel. Far more important: how to win back their traditionally left-wing working-class voters from the far right.

Across western and northern Europe traditionally left-wing working-class voters are furious at Europe’s neo-liberal “anything goes” status quo of turbo-capitalism on a restless hunt for a better deal of lower wages, tax havens and weaker social standards.

Longing for certainties

The result, Gabriel argued provocatively: today’s far right is far more effective at tapping these voters’ longing for the certainties of 1970s social democracy than today’s heirs of Brandt, Kreisky and Palme.

“Competitiveness was more important to us than [demanding] wages and pensions from which one could not only live, but live well,” writes Gabriel. “Environmental and climate protection were sometimes more important to us than retaining our industrial jobs, data protection more important than domestic security.”

Gabriel sees another problem in the drift – mentally and geographically – of centre-left politicians from their voter base.

“The majority of us have managed to move up in the world and often no longer live in neighbourhoods where our voters live,” he adds. With a polemical nod to the US, he adds: “Whoever loses the Rust Belt won’t be saved by Californian hipsters.”

Gabriel’s warning: the left cannot win again unless it admits to the emotion lingering in the corner: shame. His challenge to his political colleagues: when did you start feeling ashamed for your working-class roots – and working-class voters?

For New Labour, it came long before 2010, when an open mike caught Gordon Brown describing a former council worker as “bigoted” for airing her immigration concerns. His successor Ed Miliband fared little better, pictured gagging on a bacon butty. And let’s not forget Labour Islington MP Emily Thornberry, fired for a tweeting a picture of a house with two St George flags in the windows and a white van out front.

Germany’s Sigmar Gabriel has his own tale to tell: working-class roots and an estranged father who was an unrepentant Nazi to his dying day. Perhaps mixed feelings to his own background triggered his 2015 dismissal of anti-immigrant protestors in eastern Germany as a “rabble”. Three months ago, Germany’s “rabble” united at the polls and made the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) the third-largest party in Germany’s parliament, with 92 seats.

On election night in September, as the AfD was pulling in votes from all quarters, a Berlin audience was watching a stage adaption of Returning to Reims. The bestseller by the French intellectual and queer theorist Didier Eribon is a hybrid memoir that uses the death of his estranged father to examine his motivations for escaping his working-class roots.

Returning to visit his mother in Reims, Eribon reflects on his hometown’s drastic shift in his 30-year absence, from a communist base to far-right stronghold. The book – and stage adaption – are powerful and timely reflections on the disintegration of working-class identity and pride, but also the darker sides: working-class racism and homophobia.

Abandonment

In his adaptation Thomas Ostermeier, director of Berlin’s Schaubühne stage, suggests the shift across Europe to the Front National or AfD is the working class’s equal and opposite reaction to being abandoned by the moderate left after their embrace of Third Way politics.

The Blair-Schröder promise – to reinforce social justice by opening up the left to enterprise and capital – went astray, Ostermeier argues, because inviting neo-liberal vampires over the threshold usually ends badly for the host.

The social-mobility ladder for the working class, largely dismantled in the Thatcher-Reagan era, was eventually pulled up – or pulled apart – by Third Way politicians and intellectuals preoccupied by hubris and shame.

Ostermeier’s stage version of Returning to Reims argues that working-class identity was eventually buried by their own: politicians, journalists and others who themselves had benefited from left-wing politics that prioritised a functioning welfare state, built social housing and published Pelican books.

The very first of those enlightened volumes, published 80 years ago, was George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.

“The blunt truth,” wrote Shaw “is that ill-used people are worse than well-used people.”

Taking Shaw into the present day, Eribon argues that shame-filled, centre-left leaders have abandoned the ill-used working-class voters, who are now well used by the far right. It is easy to dismiss an exploited working-class vote for the Front National, the AfD or Austria’s new conservative-far right coalition as a turkey voting for Christmas.

In reality it is, Eribon argues, “the final recourse of working-class people attempting to defend their collective identity . . . and dignity that was being trampled on by those who had once been their representatives and defenders”.

Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent

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