Politics

Too Many Numbers, Not Enough Messages

In this text, we wish primarily – as Green finance policy specialists – to throw light on Green finance policy. We invested too little emotion in our policies; instead of vision, technocracy was at the centre of our communications. Whether on electricity prices or on tax policy, our messages were not properly understood. And we didn’t manage to motivate those social groups (for example in the education, environment and transport sectors) that would have benefited from our electoral programme to fight together with us.

Because good, Green results in the Laender had opened the door to a number of Red-Green (SPD and Greens) coalition governments, in this election campaign we were taken far more seriously by the CDU/CSU and FDP parties (the Black-Yellow camp) and the big lobby groups. As dangerous opponents we found ourselves attacked fiercely with negative campaigning. This meant that we came under more intense fire, even though our financial policy proposals were similar to those we had put forward in 2009. But we are clear on this: the Green finance policy plan affected the outcome, and in this election it cost us votes. Denying this would be just as wrong as making it into the single, unique deciding factor in the election.

During the economic good times, when unemployment and interest rates were low, we didn’t manage to communicate why we want to reform tax policy. Our tax policy was completely out of sync with the general perception of fiscal and economic conditions. Sure enough, in the final two or three weeks before the election voters were increasingly wondering how much a vote for the Greens would cost them personally. It is also true, unfortunately, that many more voters assumed that they would suffer under the Green tax plans than would actually have been the case. And we repeatedly found that many of our campaigners, bewildered by a mass of figures, fiscal jargon and mathematical models, felt unable to answer the voters’ questions.

The finance policy plan was cooperatively produced and necessary

It is also important to remember that the Green finance policy plan was the product of years of consultation within our party. It was discussed and developed in the local branches, the Laender, the parliamentary party and at national party conferences. What we were trying to achieve was a totally honest financial policy. We wanted to promise only what can be financed, and for that reason we deliberately did not promise any projects that went beyond that. This approach met with broad and justified support in the Green Land governments, amongst political representatives at the local level and in the federal parliamentary party. The Green finance policy plan has a sound and deep base in our Green system of values. It has grown out of our vision of a comprehensive concept of justice, which supports more equality of opportunity for future generations and fairer shares and greater prosperity today. The Green tax package was and remains a product of consensus within our party – as the unanimous adoption of the election manifesto demonstrates.

Our financial policy is a foundation and a prerequisite for a credible programme of governance in local authorities, in the Laender and at national level. Because calls such as that for compliance with the ‘debt brake’, or for an end to the underfinancing of local authorities, for a further expansion of daycare facilities and for more investment in the energy transition and the extension of the rail network do not become less correct or less important simply on account of increased public opposition. Without robust public finances we will be unable to realise any of these Green aspirations. But what went wrong from our perspective was this: in this election, the Green tax plan had too little support. We allowed ourselves to be limited to the declaration that we would reduce the burden for 90% and increase the burden only for 10%..

We failed to set out the opportunities, the advantages contained in our proposals, not only for the poorer section of society, for those who have been left behind up to now, but also for those bearing the increased burden. We failed to set out properly the economic strengths of our programme. Our tax plans were worked out in great detail and the calculations were reliable. Where we should have placed more emphasis was on developing a convincing Green economic programme in addition. Our ideas for the energy transition and the Green New Deal represent the basis for a new, comprehensive ‘business model’ for the economy, one which over both the short and the longer term will create new jobs!  We Greens should have developed in greater detail our programmes for the support of the SME and the skilled trades sectors, and put these at the forefront of our campaign. The same applies to our plans to achieve greater tax fairness for the SME sector through a clampdown on tax avoidance by big companies. We should have led on what a Green system of governance would look like – a political system which would set a regulatory framework for a properly functioning ecological and social market economy, which would support small businesses and protect consumers. Our tax policies complement an economic policy which is favourable to the SME sector. But unfortunately that was not an issue in this election. Tax increases therefore became the sole mantra; the social question, or green investments, did not play a role.

Communication without vision

A Federal election campaign must not be a battle over percentage points, basic allowances, tax scales and assessment methods. Our campaign was too technocratic, too fragmentary, too fond of the detail. Moreover, we believed that we could impress the public with our honesty, with the absolute transparency with which we had worked everything out and could specify which projects we would be able to fund as priorities over the next legislative period.

Yet this honesty, this self-imposed obligation, is the right thing to do and will remain so. Ours is the party which receives the highest ratings for trustworthiness – we have worked hard for that. What happens to a party that loses the trust of the voters can be seen in the case of the FDP, and ought to be a warning. But we didn’t fully grasp the fact that providing full details – rather than remaining vague, promising much but specifying nothing – also means opening yourself up to attack, We didn’t fully grasp that in providing so much detail in our programme we represented the polar opposite of Angela Merkel, who offers little by way of detail and even less in terms of commitments. We didn’t manage to force Angela Merkel into a detailed debate. We didn’t manage to demonstrate clearly to people the negative impacts that Angela Merkel’s policies have for them. We were unable to provoke an uprising against the politics of “carry on”, of “everything’s OK at the moment”. We were unable to show that things could get better. We misjudged the public mood. And as a result we became the centre of the political debate ourselves.

And so we threw away a golden opportunity. Because our vision, our programme, received, and still receives, very high public approval ratings. It is not only the wealth tax, which was still very popular in September among Green voters, or the raising of the highest income tax rate, which enjoy a clear majority in opinion polls among the German public. There is also broad support for central social policy proposals of our manifesto, such as a minimum pension, a minimum wage, or restrictions on temporary agency work. From our perspective, this is the real tragedy of this election: the fact that we suffered a defeat with a programme which in essential points enjoyed the broad approval of the people of this country.

What does this mean for our alignment and for future elections?

In these days of the ‘debt brake’, there are only three ways to formulate honest policies that do not promise more than can be funded. First, by generating increased revenues through sound measures based on solidarity; second, by cutting current expenditure; and third, by limiting our proposals for new expenditure.

We did identify during the election campaign where we would make expenditure cuts – in the Betreuungsgeld (subsidising parents who stay home to care for their pre-school children), in defence projects and in new motorway construction. Of course, there is further potential for cuts there, and in future that must be exploited more fully.  More can also be done in reducing subsidies – particularly from the perspective of Ordnungspolitik, there is a good argument for an intensified weeding-out of economic subsidies. But we don’t want to deceive the public. The room for cuts in public finances is not infinite, and in some of the Laender at least it has been almost used up already. More important are fiscally and socially fair structural reforms to reduce the privileges of the elites and the advantages enjoyed by the lobby groups. There is much more that can be done here; but those structural reforms which make sense only over the longer term are precisely those whose benefits, in terms of relieving pressure on public finances, are also only felt over the longer term. And tasks which are important for our future cannot be put off that long.

It is not possible for us to reconcile a reversal of priorities with equality of opportunity, with distributive justice, with intergenerational justice and with widening participation. We believe it is politically indefensible to reduce funding for international climate protection, not to provide funds for good daycare facilities, to jettison social policy or to reduce expenditure on international development aid. We don’t want to have to fight regional government elections in which we campaign not for more all-day schools but for reductions in the teaching workforce. Our engagement as finance policy specialists stems from our desire to fight for sound finance policy based on solidarity, and because we want to be able to fund and thereby enable and implement important projects.

In future however we want to do two things differently:

  1. Placing our tax plans in the wider context of a green economic policy. The concept of the Green New Deal, on which we campaigned in 2009, must be developed further and in more detail. In this election we lacked an all-encompassing concept of that kind. When it comes down to numbers in future, we have to be able to say precisely or to calculate: what will be the positive employment effects of our policies? Which sectors will benefit, and by how much? What will be the benefits for consumers? What will be the macro-economic effects on the economy as a whole – at national level, but also for Europe? All these things were essentially there to be found in our programme, but if we don’t set them out in detail and don’t talk about them, then we mustn’t be surprised if nobody else mentions them.
  2. Listening out, listening to, and explaining better

We have to explain our financial plans in a way that makes clear the overall vision, the Green vision of society, our values. In future we must not make the mistake of being perceived as technocratic number-crunchers, but must instead communicate a positive, green, forward-looking vision and story. To illustrate our policies we must find examples and images that match the mood of the country. We must listen out and listen to – only then will we also be able to explain better. For example, we could have sought out allies: in many local communities swimming pools and libraries are being closed, despite a buoyant economy. Despite the favourable economic conditions the business community is complaining about the backlog of renovation and repair works for the railways, bridges and roads. Despite the favourable economic conditions the skilled trades sector is waiting on improved terms for the energy-saving retrofitting of buildings. Potential allies could have been identified here and brought into our camp for a joint campaign. Changing the mood of the country cannot be achieved by political means alone – the change has to come from within the society.

We Greens know that climate change will not wait. We are aware of our historical responsibility for climate protection and for the development of the global South. We also know that children are our future and that education in early childhood is the foundation stone.

We are fighting for a society based on solidarity and openness to the world, in which nobody is left behind and nobody is excluded. We are fighting for a politics of investment today rather than repairs the day after tomorrow. That’s what it’s about. All of this has to be paid for. And the best thing is we have good ideas as to how that can be done.

This text was by Rasmus Andresen, Member of the Landtag, spokesperson on financial policy, Schleswig-Holstein; Katharina Dröge, newly elected Member of the Bundestag, North Rhine-Westphalia; Clara Herrmann, Member of the Berlin Parliament, spokesperson on budgetary policy; Sven-Christian Kindler, Member of the Bundestag, member of the Budget Committee, Lower Saxony

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