German Social Democrats veer left in break with Schröder era

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Germany's ailing Social Democrats are planning a sharp shift towards the political left this weekend in a drive to win back millions of disillusioned supporters who have abandoned the party in droves over the past decade, complaining that it has lost its left-wing soul.

The SPD's swing to the left is being led by the party's current chairman, Kurt Beck, a 58-year-old state prime minister who is struggling to rid himself of his "provincial baron" image and lead the party to victory against Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in Germany's 2009 elections.

As coalition partners with the conservatives, the SPD has seen itself outperformed by Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrat party, which has been accused of invading socialist territory with pro-environment and family reform polices and has been outflanked on the left by the new radical "Left Party".

Mr Beck has tried to play down the extent to which he aims to move the SPD back to its socialist roots. "The party needs a bit more warmth," he said yesterday, in advance of this weekend's key party congress in Hamburg, where the policy switch will be sealed. "We are taking a few more steps to add to previous policy," he said.

But in reality, Mr Beck is leading a drive to ditch or soften many of the unpopular reform policies, known as Agenda 2010, that were introduced by Germany's former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, also a Social Democrat, in his bid to emulate Tony Blair's New Labour.

"Hooray, the SPD is becoming social democratic again," is how Andrea Nahles, one of the party's left-wing deputy leaders greeted Mr Beck's imminent left turn this week.

Although Agenda 2010 is widely acknowledged as having laid the groundwork for Germany's current economic upturn, the programme has caused the SPD's membership to drop by 230,000, or nearly a third, since 1998, when Mr Schröder was first elected chancellor. At the SPD's grassroots in the industrial areas of western Germany, members nowadays complain that under Mr Schröder the Social Democrat leadership reneged on the left-wing tradition of "social justice" and became the party of the bosses.

Social Democrats have failed to benefit from their role in government. While the Chancellor and her conservative party enjoy record popularity, the SPD continues to lag up to 10 points behind in the opinion polls.

Mr Beck launched his leftist offensive this month by proposing to extend unemployment benefit for the over 55s from 18 months to 24 months – thereby reversing a key element of Mr Schröder's Agenda 2010. The suggestion provoked a furious response from Franz Müntefering, Germany's SPD Employment minister, who insisted his party "must not budge" on Agenda 2010. But this week, Mr Beck, won the overwhelming support of the SPD executive for his plan. Mr Schröder seems to have helped him by declaring at a recent SPD gathering that his Agenda 2010 was not the "Ten Commandments".

Many commentators have argued that the SPD has no option but to move left if the party is to stand any chance in the next election. Mrs Merkel's party have themselves shifted leftwards, softening their plans for radical tax and labour reforms and championing the cause of climate change.

The SPD's support has also been eaten away by the country's new Left Party – a fusion of west German leftists and the remnants of the former East German Communist Party, which emerged as the country's third largest party in elections in 2005.

So far the SPD has baulked at the idea of joining forces with the Left Party at national level. However, Mr Beck's highly popular "left turn" could herald a change of opinion. Mr Schröder was quoted yesterday as saying that he thought an alliance between the SPD and the Left Party after 2009 was "thoroughly realistic".