Monday, January 28, 2008

Hessen state elections and political strategies

The German state of Hessen went to the polls over the weekend to elect a new state government. The contest was interesting because rather than the left succumbing to Blairism and shifting to the right in an effort to minimise their political differences, they instead offered a clear choice between a right running a divisive campaign based on the hatred of immigrants and "communists", and a left promising better schools, a minimum wage, and a shift to renewable energy.

The results [Translated from German] are now in, and while no-one is a clear winner yet (German states use proportional representation, and there are tricky coalition negotiations ahead), there is at least one clear loser: Roland Koch and the Christian Democrats. They've gone from a near majority of 48.8% to a virtual tie with the Social Democrats on 36.8%, and will almost certainly end up losing power as a result. And this doesn't bode well for Angela Merkel's chances next year.

But there's also an obvious local application: the success of the SPD in Hessen shows that a left party can do well by standing up for what it believes in rather than cuddling up to the right. And by doing so it can also change the tone of politics, and shift the political discussion in our direction, and away from the right-wing rhetoric of tax-cuts, immigrant-bashing, and pandering to the rich. If Labour wants any hope of a fourth term, it needs to do exactly that. People are not going to turn out to support a party which offers only more of the same, a slower creep to the right than National does. Neither will they see any great reason not to vote for change. If Labour wants to win this year, it needs to actually inspire people, give them reason to vote for it, offer popular policies that National never could, or which (better yet) bring National's ugly service-slashing side to the surface again. Pallid centrism and "don't change horses in mid stream" just won't be enough.

The question is whether Labour will learn that lesson in time, or continue down its current path.

(European Tribune has more on the Hessen election - and that in Lower Saxony - here).