The SPD just won the Frankfurt mayoralty in a landslide. So why are Germany’s cities going red?

No wonder he looks pleased: Frankfurt mayor Peter Feldmann (left) with Angela Merkel and other German leaders in 2015. Image: Getty.

It was a landslide so large that it even surprised the winner. In last Sunday’s mayoral election in Frankfurt, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) incumbent Peter Feldmann won 70.8 per cent of the vote, against just 29.2 per cent for his opponent, Bernadette Weyland from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

This result is even more shocking if you look back six years to the last election. In 2012, Frankfurt’s mayor was the hugely popular Petra Roth, a CDU stalwart who’d led the city for 17 years, and who won her last election with such a massive majority that the SPD didn’t even make it to a run-off. Both Frankfurt’s seats in parliament are held by the CDU – and the CDU has been the largest party on the council almost continuously since 1977. It shouldn’t be easy territory for the SPD, and yet they won every single district.

Map of Frankfurt’s districts, with those won in the run-off by SPD in red. There is no other colour. Image adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

Yet Frankfurt is not an anomaly. Up and down Germany, the SPD and others on the centre-left are winning cities from the CDU, even as social democratic parties continues to sink nationally and internationally. How do they do it, and are there any lessons for British parties?

In 2008, of Germany’s ten largest cities, five mayors were CDU and five were SPD. Now, the SPD hold seven. One (Stuttgart) is Green, one (Cologne) is a pro-refugee independent, and just one (Essen) is CDU.

After Essen, you have to scroll all the way down to Bonn, Germany’s nineteenth largest city, to find a second CDU mayor. The SPD also hold every state capital except Dresden and a majority of Germany’s “Großstädte” (those with a population over 100,000).

The mayor isn’t powerless – although the German title Oberbürgermeister(in) is often misleadingly translated Lord Mayor, the role is comparable to an English elected mayor. The mayor leads the council cabinet, oversees the city’s administration, and acts as its spokesperson. Winning mayoralities matters.


A bit of the SPD’s advantage can be explained by the electoral system. With the exception of the three cities that double as federal states (Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg), most mayors are directly elected in a two-round run-off system: if no-one wins 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, the top two candidates battle it out again a couple of weeks later.

Germany has a fairly fragmented political system – alongside the SPD and CDU (and their Bavarian sister party CSU), there are also the centre-right liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), the centre-left Greens, the hard left Linke, and recently the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), plus a smattering of local parties. Any of these parties can put up a strong showing… but it’s usually the CDU and SPD who end up in the run-off. When push comes to shove, most Green and Linke supporters will take the SPD over the CDU.

Still, the electoral system hasn’t changed in most states in the last ten years, yet the CDU have lost numerous mayoralities in this time.

Frankfurt’s election offers an illustration of how. Feldmann’s campaign hammered home three key policies over and over again: Rent freeze, cheaper transport, free nurseries. (A fourth, “Act ecologically”, was added to posters for the run-off to win over Green voters.)

Weyland by contrast offered a campaign based on identity. “Wer Frankfurt liebt, wahlt Weyland” (“Those who love Frankfurt, vote Weyland”). It’s not that she was without policies – over and over again in debates, she asked voters to read her “Masterplan” for the city – but without simple proposals that could be expressed in a sentence or on a poster, she failed to gain any traction.

Posters for some of the front runners in Frankfurt’s mayoral election (top-to-bottom: SPD, Linke, independent and CDU) Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

The CDU has an acknowledged “Großstadt-Problem” – they’re losing ground fast in big cities. CDU politicians blame it on the conservative party being too “uncool” for hip city-dwellers, while political scientists Hendrik Träger and Jan Pollex say the CDU suffers from local factors and a selection process that tends to pick unsuitable party insiders. Whatever the reasons, the SPD has managed to sweep through Germany’s major cities.

So is there anything British politicians can learn from Germany – in particular, the SPD’s counterparts in Labour, who lost a string of what seemed like very safe metro mayor elections in 2017?

Personality counts more than party. The CDU has paid the price for putting up a long series of insiders. Here, Labour can perhaps learn from the Tories in the West Midlands. Although the Conservative candidate Andy Street had never held political office before, he narrowly beat Labour’s Siôn Simon, a long-time Birmingham politician.

Other parties’ voters matter. A two-round election – whether Germany’s run-off elections or Britain’s Supplementary Vote system – rewards politicians with appeal outside their base. By winning over supporters of both hard-left and centrist parties in the 2012 run-off, Peter Feldmann went from 6 points behind in the first round to 15 points ahead, securing his surprise election.

Finally, you need clear talking points. When Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayoral candidate for Tees Valley, announced that he planned to bring the failing Durham Tees Valley Airport into public ownership, he was widely mocked. But his airport plan was a concrete proposal – and one that’s very easy to sum up in a sentence – and Houchen went on to secure a real shock victory. Political ideals like patriotism or fairness may go down in a national campaign, but if you’re running for mayor, “Free nurseries” beats “If you love Frankfurt, vote for me” any day.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.