Hubertus Heil: stamping an SPD identity on the coalition government

Since the SPD’s historically low vote of 20.5% in the 2017 election, the party has been struggling to re-establish a clear identity and to communicate what it stands for in the 21st century. One of the party’s ‘hope-bearers’ – a politician in whom hope for the future is placed – is Employment Minister, Hubertus Heil. He is little known outside Germany, but an important figure in the party. Indeed, the Tagesspiegel wrote in 2019 that, “many comrades expect nothing less than the salvation of the SPD,” from Heil.

The politician from Lower Saxony  may seem  an unlikely hero.  But he has, together with finance minister Olaf Scholz, played a key role in trying to stamp an SPD identity onto the coalition government.  

This is a significant issue for the party, which has been languishing at around 14% – 17% in the polls since the 2017 election.   During the protracted debate about whether to go into a third coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU, many in the party doubted whether it could renew whilst in coalition.   

The performance of SPD ministers in government is therefore crucial in determining whether the party can not only win back lost voters from its diminishing traditional base, but also appeal to a wider voter electorate once more.  In particular, the job of Employment Minister is key to the SPD’s values, and is a position held in the last coalition by former leader Andrea Nahles, who introduced the minimum wage.  

Heil at the December 2019 party conference

Heil has been an MP since 1998 and Employment Minister since 2018.  He was General Secretary of the Party from 2005 to 2009 and for a short period during 2017.  In 2019 he was also elected as one of the party’s five deputies. 

Heil believes that he understands the needs of the less privileged: he was brought up by a single mother who was forced to leave her full-time employment – he said “I have experienced myself what social rise and fall means.”

He is on the moderate, pragmatic  wing of the party, like Olaf Scholz, He was a founding member of Neztwerk Berlin, a progressive grouping within the SPD.  When he became General Secretary of the party in 2005, he was committed to pursuing a debate on the Party’s agenda, convinced that the party would want to reform itself in order to be able to win power in 2009, and presided over the re-writing of the SPD programme, known as the Hamburg Programme, which set out the party’s basic principles, in 2007.  

In December 2019, the SPD held a party conference to elect a new leader, following the resignation of Andrea Nahles.  Left-wingers Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, who won the election, had threatened to withdraw the party from  the coalition government  – a position popular amongst the membership, but not amongst SPD ministers and MPs (the new leaders rowed back on this once elected).  In an interview with the Financial Times  at that time, Heil warned against a leftwards course for the party, pointing to Corbyn’s Labour as an example to avoid. “The SPD must not crawl towards the fringes. It should aspire to be a political force in the centre-left that competes with the CDU for working voters in the middle of society…..That is why the path of the UK Labour Party is not a role model for German social democracy – the SPD must be a force for renewal that actually wants to change things.”

Since becoming Employment Minister, Heil has introduced  some significant changes designed to improve employees’ working lives.

Speaking in the Bundestag, Heil said that, “With the basic pension, we are renewing a core promise of our welfare state. Those who have worked their entire life will also be protected in old age.”

In 2019, he introduced changes in employment contacts, including the right to time-limited part-time employment (after going into part-time work – for example, for training or childcare reasons –  employees now have the right to go back into full-time employment) and  the restriction of short-term contracts, so that chains of short-term contracts are avoided.   He has also required employers to pay social security taxes for contracted parcel delivery workers.

In June this year, he announced that the minimum wage  will be raised in stages to 10.45 euros per hour by mid 2022.  Heil said that the minimum wage  has been a “success story, that needs to keep being written” and that the state should work towards bringing it closer to €12 per hour.

The party has also made progress on pensions.   In April, in the midst of the corona crisis, Heil announced a pension increase from 1st July for 21 million pensioners. In the west of the country, pensions will increase by 3.45% and in the east, 4.2%.   Then in July, after a long fight with the CDU, the SPD’s  basic pension reform passed in parliament.  From 2021, there will be a supplement to people’s pensions where they are low, if that person has paid contributions for at least 33 years. The basic pension will affect around 1.3 million people and cost 1.3 to 1.6 billion a year.

During the corona pandemic, Heil’s ministry has been at the forefront of some of the most significant measures mitigating the effects of the crisis.

The quick expansion of the 2008/9 short-time work, or Kurzarbeit,  scheme has been praised for avoiding a major increase in unemployment  (short-time work  enables companies  to temporarily suspend  or significantly reduce employees’ hours without laying them off; employees receive between 60% and 80% of their income, subsidised by the state).   In May,  a record 7.3 million employees were registered for short work  – far above the  1.15 million at the height of the 2009 financial crisis.  Although in July 2,910,000  were registered as unemployed (6.3%), 635,000 higher than a year ago, short-time work has been credited with avoiding an even larger increase. However, this number is predicted to rise by the autumn, with some forecasts saying that 5 million could become unemployed.  

Heil also  increased the amount of short-time money employees receive from 60% of net income, to 70% from the fourth month and 80% from the seventh month (and more for employees with children). This was popular with employees and unions but the Handelsblatt cites researchers who think that created unrealistic expectations;  “at some point we will reach a point where we try to save jobs that are not sustainable.” In August, the coalition agreed to extend short-time work from 12 months to 24 months: Heil said that, “Of course: Short-time work is very expensive, but mass unemployment would be financially and socially much more expensive for our country.”

Additionally, Heil has expanded access to basic social security, extended the duration of entitlement to unemployment benefits, ensured that parents with children up to age 12 who can no longer go to school or kindergarten because of the pandemic are to be supported by continued wages, and announced that he plans to introduce a bill enshrining the right to work from home in the autumn.   He has also promised more regulation in the country’s powerful meat sector after new COVID-19 hotspots erupted at several slaughterhouses across the country, with hundreds of migrant workers from Eastern Europe infected.

Despite Heil and Scholz’s performance and the approval their work receives in the polls  (in June, Scholz was the second most popular politician with 60% approval, and Heil the sixth most popular with 39% approval) the SPD itself has not reaped the rewards.  Rather, the CDU/CSU Union saw its poll ratings shoot up by 12 points, while the SPD continues to poll on about 17%. 

This could change in the next year; the party has nominated Olaf Scholz as its Chancellor candidate and is expecting that his record in government – particularly during the corona pandemic – will encourage more voters to place their trust in the SPD. Certainly, some of the reforms Heil and Scholz have introduced can show that the SPD has brought about change in government.

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