Monday, 29 May 2017

The rise and fall of Martin Schulz

Jörg Michael Dostal

Sometimes the (ir-)relevance of ‘academic’ articles rises and falls before their ultimate publication. This is the case with my paper on German social democracy in the current edition of Political Quarterly, written in December of last year. Briefly, my main thesis is that a social democratic party turned neoliberal could not, cannot and will not win elections run under an electoral system of proportional representation – as is the case in Germany. My thesis is neither new nor in any way original. If you do everything you can to demobilize your (former) core voters, by adopting socio-economic policies that are directly opposed to their material interests – such as cutting taxes for high earners, removing social protection and shifting the tax base away from progressive to regressive taxes, as was all done during the red-green coalition government led by the former German SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder between 1998 and 2005 – you will simply destroy your political support base.

Since the Schröder years, half of former SPD voters – around 10 million people altogether – have drifted away. The probably largest group has opted out from the political process and no longer votes in elections (differences in electoral participation between residential areas with lower and higher socio-economic status are dramatically high in Germany). Other former SPD voters have turned to the CDU/CSU (why vote for the copy of a neoliberal party if you can vote for the original?), the Left Party or the right-wing populists of the AfD. Yet losing one’s traditional voters has not, in fact, meant that new centrist voters would have turned to the SPD to compensate for the losses – as Blairites used to claim. In electoral terms, the SPD has virtually nothing to show for its ‘modernization’ during the Schröder years. Since the German proportional electoral system allows voters a greater degree of choice when compared with British majority voting, the SPD cannot take its traditional voters for granted and must work hard to attract new ones. In earlier times, the core of the social democratic message used to be the commitment to ‘social justice’. Today, the SPD can no longer explain to voters from disadvantaged milieus why they should vote social democratic, and the party appears to stand for nothing much in particular.

In an oblique way, the SPD has recently tried addressing its poor electoral track record in the federal elections of 2005, 2009 and 2013. First, the SPD has engaged in a major shuffling of its leadership personnel. The former SPD foreign minister, Frank Steinmeier, has become the German president (a largely ceremonial role), and the former SPD chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, has taken Steinmeier’s position in the current grand coalition government in which the SPD acts as junior partner of Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU. This prepared the stage for the re-entry of Martin Schulz, the former chairman of the European Parliament, into German domestic politics. On 24 January 2017, he was announced to be the candidate for chancellor of the SPD and, shortly afterwards, was also elected as the new SPD leader with the North Korean-style electoral support of 100 per cent of the party delegates.

To the surprise of most observers, including this writer, Schulz quickly gained political momentum: the SPD experienced the virtually first sustained upturn in opinion polls since the Schröder years and, at one point, Schulz matched Merkel’s popularity figures. This development became known as ‘Schulzmania’ in the media and on Twitter. It appeared to hand the SPD a real fighting chance to defeat Merkel in the polls in September 2017.

Why did ‘Schulzmania’ occur? From my point of view, candidate Schulz did something right: he appealed to what German sociologists usually describe as the ‘traditional employee milieus’ in German society (in his own words the ‘people who keep things moving’), and he clearly stated that it was unjust that people losing their jobs for reasons beyond their control also lose their rights in the German social security system after a single year of unemployment benefits. He suggested that people who had paid into the social insurance system all their life should be treated better, and that re-training of the unemployed for qualified jobs, rather than forcing them into poor quality employment, must be a right that the SPD should honour. In fact, his words had a very strong impact and there was a short-lived wave of enthusiasm welcoming the candidate as the saviour that the SPD had been waiting for all along.

As was to be expected, the counteroffensive of the mainstream media – mostly aligned with the conservatives – pushed the opposite story line. They suggested that the Schröder-SPD’s welfare retrenchment and deregulation of the labour market, mostly between 2003 and 2005, had been a ‘success’ and that Schulz was riding the dead horse of social justice. To quote two typical voices, one journalist suggested that ‘efforts to regain the insecure clientele at the margins of society are so last season. After three [SPD] defeats in regional elections, Martin Schulz wants to avoid more than ever to scare the centrist electorate with expensive initiatives’ (Spiegel, 20 May 2017). In the same spirit, an opinion pollster suggested that ‘it is the cardinal mistake of Schulz to put the topic of ‘justice’ so much at the centre of his campaign’ (Stern, 21 May 2017).

Yet if these observers could really be right, how could we possibly take account of ‘Schulzmania’ in the first place? The basic issue of whether or not labour market deregulation and welfare retrenchment count as a ‘success’ is of course determined by the politics of class: it certainly was highly successful from the point of view of employers and the well-off. Yet it was a major blow from the point of view of employees fearing for the security of their jobs and those depending on welfare state solidarity.

Overall, the SPD must make an effort to clarify its electoral message. Does the party continue to advocate for neoliberalism-lite, or is it going to demand major policy change in favour of the socially disadvantaged? Most opinion pollsters claim that ‘social justice’ is not a winning topic in the forthcoming election, suggesting that other issues such as the refugee crisis, domestic security, and health and pension policies are more significant. Yet opinion pollsters frame such issues too narrowly: each of the ‘other’ major issues has a strong social justice component. A weak and deregulated state is not going to be able to solve any of the problems facing the German public at present. Thus, Schulz would be well-advised to stay ‘on message’ and to avoid blurring his initial focus on social justice. The current (late May 2017) main SPD talking point – namely reorganizing health insurance by creating a more universal system – is too obscure and has already been around in SPD announcements for many years. It is certainly not a topic that is going to solve the SPD’s search for a clear programmatic message. Schulz must reassert his position or face a lengthy and painful decline as a candidate until election day on 22 September.

Let us be honest: even the best electoral strategy would in all likelihood not allow for a left-of-centre government in Germany later this year. The current age is not a social democratic one, and electoral failure on the part of the SPD is ultimately due to difficulties shared by all progressive parties in offering convincing alternatives to neoliberal retrenchment and austerity. The SPD, the Greens and the Left Party all struggle with their own particular mobilization problems in elections, and they have collectively failed to create a mood in favour of political change in Germany. Yet this does not change the fact that the SPD and candidate Schulz really must try harder to run an election campaign with a coherent message. This would at least allow re-gaining some of the lost electoral ground.

The full article 'The Crisis of German Social Democracy Revisited' is available here

Friday, 26 May 2017

Why Grammar Schools? Why Social Mobility?

The controversy about increasing admissions to Britain’s surviving grammar schools has re-opened old, half-forgotten, lines of political controversy. The result is that some issues, such as the negative impact of selective schools on others in their areas, attract considerable attention, while many do not. Among the latter are the questions of why, and when, selection in secondary education can be justified, and of the plausibility of the justification actually deployed by Theresa May’s government.

One defence of selective schooling is that a country’s pool of educated people is too small to sustain its future economy and state administration. Indeed, this was at the centre of the National Efficiency movement’s support for a major expansion in grammar schools (which began in 1907). The pool was then too small because many pupils in private schools were not well educated, and had little interest in training for careers where a high level of skill was required. This was a system in which personal connections were crucial to job recruitment, for the middle class as much as the working class, and many of the skills eventually needed were acquired during employment. National Efficiency advocates wanted to broaden access to secondary education to social classes beyond the more affluent middle class so as to fill this “skills” gap.

A century later nearly all private schools have to demonstrate to parents that their pupils obtain high academic credentials, because their children’s success in the labour market now depends on it. This massive transformation in the operation of private education since the mid-20th century has meant that, nationally, more than enough adolescents are educated to a sufficiently high standard to fill the most skilled jobs. Indeed, five years after they complete their degrees more than one third of current graduates are still not in jobs designated as requiring graduate entry. Thus, with the important exception of some specific sectors, there is no shortage of highly qualified entrants to the workforce. Moreover, while it is possible that these exceptions might conceivably be rectified by the creation of very specialized selective schools, increasing the overall number of grammar school places could not do so. The May justification for her policy is different therefore, being couched in terms of increasied social mobility. This is an implausible rationale that has attracted surprisingly little comment, despite its underpinning assumptions being largely spurious.

First, the scale of the proposed increase in grammar school places is so small that any impact on British social structure overall will be tiny. It is akin to claiming that economic inequality nationally can be reduced by the government establishing a lottery fund from which a few poorer people each month will be set up as millionaires.

Secondly, even if that expansion were much larger, disadvantaged primary school children would have to be the beneficiaries of positive discrimination in selection processes for most to compete successfully for places, given the family and school advantages many middle-class children would have had beforehand. While May wants schools to ensure that some places do go to the disadvantaged, the whole history of selection in those areas (notably Kent and Buckinghamshire) where comprehensivization was not introduced 40 years ago has been of a strong association with social class. Obviously what middle class voters in those areas do not want is for their grammar schools to be given over primarily to the children of the disadvantaged; their aim is to reduce stress for themselves and their children in relation to the 11+ examination, by having more places available to them. They will surely get their way, and the class bias in grammar school selections will largely continue.

Thirdly, there is a widely held, but false, myth that for any position, providing you devise the right sort of selection procedures, you can always determine an approximate rank order among candidates, thereby ensuring the “best” are selected. In fact, even with adults, with vast amounts of information about them available, and with extensive testing, selection is imperfect. While it is relatively easy to determine competence – who does, and who does not, have the skills to be proficient in a particular activity – rank-ordering the competent is subject to considerable inaccuracy in all cases. That is, assessments of relative potential for future performance are always, and necessarily, highly imprecise. That situation is far worse when information is limited and when it is children being ranked for rationed places (at grammar schools). Among those children who do demonstrate competence, it is luck that will primarily determine which of them gets admitted and which rejected.

Finally, like most politicians, May invokes social mobility as if it were always a desirable social goal. It is not. Obviously, few today would advocate a society in which social advancement was impossible, and most argue that mobility during the last century has been socially beneficial. However, the expansion of the middle class then was the result primarily of changes in the labour market, with proportionately fewer non-skilled jobs and more skilled ones. Some of those born into working class families thus became middle class. Relative social peace was possible because there was much less downward mobility than upward mobility. If this earlier shift in the labour market does not continue this century, and there is strong evidence that it will not, then any upward mobility will be associated with corresponding downward movement. Too much of the latter can be at least as politically destabilizing as too little of the former, as Poujadism in 1950s France demonstrated.

For a leader portraying herself and her party as agents for political stability, May’s invocation of social mobility as a core objective is somewhat ironic therefore. While some mobility is always valuable, too much would almost certainly not be promoted by anyone supposedly intent on preserving the polity’s stability during the present century. While St Augustine supposedly exclaimed “Make me good, God, but not yet”, May is surely committed to the view: “Give me social mobility, but not too much”.

You can read Alan Ware's article 'Grammar Schools, a Policy of Social Mobility and Selection - Why' here.