left, right and party ‘cartels’

Following five German regional elections this year, there’s now a bit of a breather. Needless to say there’s been plenty of analysis, not least on TV talk shows, with guests from various parties chewing over what it all means. Beyond the percentages, plusses and minuses, something that’s really caught my attention is a renewed focus on party types and even mention of a ‘party cartel’ — themes that overlap with my research in a big way*. So I thought I’d take a closer look in this blog.

My research focuses on the notion of a ‘cartel’ of established parties, willing and even colluding to moderate their policies (‘output’). The motivation to do so is to minimise ‘costs’ (by offering fewer and less ambitious policies) and therefore the risk to their own position within the state. On a recent talk show (in German), Left Party parliamentary spokesperson Sahra Wagenknecht alluded to such a cartel, particularly regarding the CDU and SPD: the policies of these mass parties have become indistinguishable to the extent that voters now regard the parties as interchangeable. Indeed, Cartel Theory explains that, with little to differentiate the parties, elections are decided on managerial competence, rather than on policy. Wagenknecht argued that the parties have only themselves to blame, as they have pursued a common neoliberal agenda and shared an ideological commitment to austerity. The SPD in particular has clearly abandoned its traditional constituency and prioritised governmental power (currently with the CDU) over social justice; the result being low wages, inadequate pensions and precarious employment. Ten years ago it was the Left Party that stood outside the ‘cartel’ of parties implementing or advocating the dismantling of welfare benefits and deregulation of the job market (Agenda 2010, Hartz). Today the AfD too sees itself outside the mainstream. The ‘cartel’ therefore is challenged from both left and right.

However, parties and governments have means of quelling such challenges. One is outsourcing policy. Placing policy and decision-making beyond democratic control minimises the threat from challengers, for if an industry or service is privatised, or if decision-making is surrendered to another authority, there is little scope for competitors (or even elements within the party itself) to demand credible, alternative policies. The SPD’s endorsement of the CETA EU-Canadian ‘free trade’ deal relieves the leadership from longer-term pressure from the left wing of the party; as CETA externalises power to corporations and lawyers, and privatisation continues, what promises can SPD members and voters realistically demand of their leadership regarding union rights, protection and regulations? This way, alternatives are shut down or minimalised, leaving governing parties and coalitions to take turns as ‘managers’. 

Rhetoric is another powerful means of attacking challengers and shaping public discourse. Take the response to Wallonia’s rejection of CETA an example. For daring to block a deal that no-one has been asked about, the Wallonian government has been subjected to a tirade of insults (communist, reckless, incompetent) from both sides of the deal, and democracy has been framed both by politicians and media as some sort of inconvenience (German). In the end, Wallonia bowed to the pressure. National legislatures that dither over ratification further down the line can expect similar treatment. 

In national politics, we can see the SPD and CDU using rhetoric to present a united front against small parties threatening their majorities and coalition-building capacity. Extolling the virtues of their broad appeal, readiness to compromise and willingness to shoulder responsibility, the CDU and SPD urge voters to preserve the role and influence of both mass parties. At the same time, they use strong rhetoric to attack the Left Party and AfD, accusing the two parties of thriving on discord and crisis. Perhaps not that surprising, as these two parties disrupt the tried and tested 2+2 system of CDU, SPD and preferred partners, the Greens and FDP. But what I find particularly interesting here (especially as it carefully ignores the Left Party’s participation in regional government coalitions), is the increasingly common attempt to portray the Left Party and AfD as two sides of the same coin. In a further example, pro-SPD newspaper Die Zeit (German) deliberately mixes up Left (Links) and Right (Rechts) in a less-than-subtle effort to convince us that ‘Lechts und Rinks’ amount to the same unsavoury thing.


To be honest, I find this rather lazy. It’s nothing new to say that if you go far enough in one political direction, say, left, you eventually come full circle and meet up with the right. But by the same measure, you could argue that UK socialists and Greens occupy the same political ground as UKIP, purely because of their opposition to CETA. This conveniently ignores why they adopt these positions (Capital-labour conflict? Environmental protection? Nationalism?), as well as their respective solutions. Similarly, the Left Party and AfD both take issue with the mass parties, but for completely different reasons and from contrasting perspectives. The Left Party criticises the minimum wage because it is too low — is any work only worth an hourly rate of €8.50? — the AfD is opposed to it because it’s too high and a ‘job killer’. The Left Party attacks taxation laws for being too lenient towards inheritance and top earners, for example; the AfD opposes inheritance tax and favours a Kirchhoff-style flat tax. The Left Party calls out the government over the dismal lack of childcare and argues for more comprehensive all-day schools; the AfD, also critical of the government, wants to see a return to a home-based ‘traditional’ family model. So yes, the Left Party and AfD attack the established parties and are direct competitors for the same voter groups (workers, protest/non-voters), but there is clear water between their ideological approaches and policies.

So I suspect what we’re really seeing here, ahead of next year’s General Election, is a concerted effort to discredit the parties challenging the policy offer from both ends of the political spectrum and making life uncomfortable for the mass parties and their coalition preferences. With the prospect of the Bundestag’s seats being shared between six parties, neither the CDU nor SPD are thrilled about having to form another Grand Coalition — rarely a marriage of love — as the only realistic way of achieving a sustainable majority. And what of a Red-Red-Green (‘R2G’) coalition? Numerically, it might work. But the Left Party has declared it will not support an SPD Chancellor that ratifies CETA, and divisions over R2G vs. principled opposition run very deep within the party itself. Moreover, how readily will the SPD adopt key Left Party line-in-the-sand positions — on the living wage, Hartz IV sanctions or foreign policy, for example? Because after all, a cartel is interested in narrowing supply, not increasing it. 

Finally, some of the points in this blog reminded me of a humorous 1990 TV interview in which host Clive Anderson clumsily attempted to include Labour MP Tony Benn in the same political camp as Margaret Thatcher, because both were critical — for entirely different reasons — of the European integration process. Over twenty-five years later (!) it’s still well worth a look (in English), not least because of the continuing relevance of the nuclear weapons issue, welfare, the responsibility of the state and eroding democracy. And also because of Tony Benn.

* For more on Cartel Theory and a brief list of references, see the my earlier blogpost: ‘The faces of Labour’s leadership conflict (part two)’.  https://wordpress.com/post/thegreenlefthand.net/922

image credit: photo by ‘683440’/ pixabay


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