German Social Democrats

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour party heading towards defeat in Thursday’s British general election, the European left may soon be in even worse condition than it was just one year ago.  The trouble started in last June’s European Parliament elections, when centre-right parties swept to victory in the European Union’s six biggest countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK.

Then came the Social Democrats’ crushing defeat in September’s German election: the SPD took a mere 23 per cent of the vote, its worst result in the Federal Republic’s 60-year history.  Finally, Hungary’s ruling socialists were decimated last month in an election that saw the triumph of the centre-right Fidesz party and a strong performance by the ultra-right Jobbik party. 

The memories came flooding back when I heard last weekend that Oskar Lafontaine, the leftwing German political leader, was withdrawing from national politics.  Lafontaine is the sort of public figure that lazy journalists often call “firebrand” (Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko, though from the opposite end of the political spectrum, is another).

I first came across Lafontaine in November 1990, just after capitalist West Germany had taken over communist East Germany – a more accurate way of putting it, in Lafontaine’s opinion, than the weaselly term “reunification”.  He was the Social Democratic party’s candidate for chancellor in the first parliamentary elections in the newly united Germany, and he was holding a campaign rally in a sports hall in east Berlin.