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A Tale of Two Social Democrats

Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder both wanted to reform Europe's social democracy. William Patterson, an expert on Germany, explains why Blair could win three elections while the end of Schröder's political career looms.


Similar politics, different success rates

On June 8, 1999 , Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder published a so-called Schröder-Blair paper, in which they aimed to modernize their social democratic parties. Now, almost 6 years later, Tony Blair has won a historic third election victory while it looks like Gerhard Schröder might be voted out of office in the fall. In your opinion, what has Blair done right and what has Schröder done wrong?

It's not so much a question of what one or other has done right, they are both very formidable politicians. It is more a question of differing contexts. Blair was a post-Thatcher prime minister, where most of the most contentious domestic issues were already resolved and he inherited a very successful economy. In the case of Gerhard Schröder, he inherited a situation where a domestic reform had not taken place and where the economy was in a weak state and has got worse. The combination of the fact that he therefore had to tackle some of these reform issues plus the continuing high employment, at the end of the day that was terrible, I think.

Tony Blair's position on the Iraq war is very controversial and unpopular, whereas Gerhard Schröder's opposition to the military intervention was supported by much of the German population. Why could Blair win an election after that, while Schröder could not?

There are two reasons for that. First, for the populace, domestic and economic issues are much more important than foreign policy. That fact that the economic situation in Great Britain is relatively good was enough to ensure Blair a victory. Then you must add to that the fact that the Conservatives are very unpopular. Pertaining to Schröder, his Iraq policy helped him win in 2002 but had little staying power. The fact that unemployment in Germany was never so high was very painful for the SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

Blair und Schröder

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R) pictured at the beginning of a two day EU summit in Brussels, Thursday 04 November 2004. Foto: Benoit Doppagne dpa

In your opinion, does Schröder have a chance to win the election?

With anybody else in the world, I would say no and it would still be very likely he would lose the election. But Schröder is such a formidable campaigner, and no one thought last time that the combination of the floods on the Elbe and the way in which instrumentalized the Iraq war would bring him to an electoral victory. But I still think it's very, very difficult to do it this time. Schröder could suffer the fate of John Major, who won the British election unexpectedly in 1992, but when he did lose in 1997, he lost really big. And I think the indications from North Rhine-Westphalia indicate that that is a possibility in Germany. The people there seem to have decided that it is time for a change. It is possible, even probable, that he could fall victim to a similar sentiment throughout Germany.

Schröder and Blair both took office with a pledge to reform their parties. Now more than six years later, the labels Neue Mitte and New Labour, seem to be a bit used up and are apparently disliked within both parties. Could you compare the state of Labour and the Social Democrats (SPD) today?

Both parties are in a bad state, but the SPD is worse off than New Labour. Tony Blair is at the point where he has seriously aggravated a large number of his own party members and he will go within the next 18 months. But he has a designated, a clear successor [Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer -- eds.] and it's very unlikely that policy will change really very significantly. He's also blessed with the fact that the conservatives remain both unpopular and without any credible policy prescriptions because Blair has simply occupied all the positions that a normal conservative party would. Schröder, who is by far the most impressive Social Democrat, has no obvious successor. It appears much less likely in Germany that there is a consensus about party policy that can be sustained over a longer period. Already after the North Rhine-Westphalia election, there have been a number of statements by people particularly on the left of the SPD indicating that policy needs to be changed. Also in the election, a policy associated with party chairman Müntefering, of the locusts, that was a pretty desperate throw. It is fairly stark contradiction to other elements in party and government policy. I think they are in much deeper difficulty than the Labour Party.

What could Gerhard Schröder learn from Tony Blair?

The two get along very well and meet each other quite often. There are limitations to what Schröder could learn from Blair, but perhaps one thing would be to find a successor such as Gordon Brown. What helped Blair very much was that his finance minister took care of nearly all domestic and economic issues for Blair, and very successfully at that. There is no equivalent on the German political landscape.

William Paterson is a political scientist and the director of the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham and of the German British Forum.

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