A Lesson from Germany; across Europe, Parties of the Left Are Replacing Their Leaders in a Desperate Attempt to Regain Lost Ground. Denis MacShane on What Labour Should Learn

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In a fit of despair at its slumping popularity, the main centre-left party in government decided to replace its burly party leader, whose poll ratings hovered around 25 per cent. A cerebral member of cabinet--best known as a staffer for the previous leader, a proven election-winner--was chosen in his place. The party in question is Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), whose leader, Kurt Beck, has just been replaced by the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmerier.

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German papers are hailing the "re-Schroderisation" of the SPD: Steinmeier was a close aide of Gerhard Schroder as regional prime minister of Hanover in the 1990s and then as chief of staff between 1998 and 2005, when Schroder was chancellor. If he beats Angela Merkel in the September 2009 elections, it will be the first time that Steinmeier has been elected into office by German voters.

The Austrian Socialists did something similar in the summer. They narrowly won an election last November but their new chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, failed to inspire, so the party replaced him and called early elections, due to be held on 28 September. But the Socialists cannot get above 30 percent of voting intentions despite changing their leader. The Austrian parliamentary left is in no better shape than the German Social Democrats.

The Sturmund Drang of Labour's sister parties in Germany and Austria reflect the wider malaise of the democratic left in Europe: a sapping of will, an absence of ideology, and a lack of flair, style and risk-taking. The 20th-century European left is dying and a 21st-century democratic left cannot be born. Morbid symptoms are more in evidence than the confidence to show that progressive reformist politics can renew itself in the face of global dislocations.

German social democracy has many similarities to Labour's. It has always compromised with market economics, summed up by Willy Brandt's phrase: "As much market as possible, as much regulation as necessary." It has also been strongly Adanricist-Brandt was shouted down by the London left as a running dog of American imperialism when he tried to speak at Friends Meeting House in the early 1960s.

But that was the 20th century. Over the past decade, trade union membership in Germany has declined more than in Britain, and its unions seem incapable of reinventing themselves and organising the new proletariat--non-Germans, female part-timers and the self-employed. The SPD's membership fell this summer below that of the conservative CDU for the first time since 1950. …