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.

 
 
 
 

These maps of petition signatories show which bits of the country are most enthusiastic about scrapping Brexit

The Scottish bit. Image: UK Parliament.

As anyone in the UK who has been near an internet connection today will no doubt know, there’s a petition on Parliament’s website doing the rounds. It rejects Theresa May’s claim – inevitably, and tediously, repeated again last night – that Brexit is the will of the people, and calls on the government to end the current crisis by revoking Article 50. At time of writing it’s had 1,068,554 signatures, but by the time you read this it will definitely have had quite a lot more.

It is depressingly unlikely to do what it sets out to do, of course: the Prime Minister is not in listening mode, and Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has already been seen snarking that as soon as it gets 17.4m votes, the same number that voted Leave in 2016, the government will be sure to give it due care and attention.

So let’s not worry about whether or not the petition will be successful and instead look at some maps.

This one shows the proportion of voters in each constituency who have so far signed the petition: darker colours means higher percentages. The darkest constituencies tend to be smaller, because they’re urban areas with a higher population density. (As with all the maps in this piece, they come via Unboxed, who work with the Parliament petitions team.)

And it’s clear the petition is most popular in, well, exactly the sort of constituencies that voted for Remain three years ago: Cambridge (5.1 per cent), Bristol West (5.6 per cent), Brighton Pavilion (5.7 per cent) and so on. Hilariously, Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North is also at 5.1 per cent, the highest in London, despite its MP clearly having remarkably little interest in revoking article 50.

By the same token, the sort of constituencies that aren’t signing this thing are – sit down, this may come as a shock – the sort of places that tended to vote Leave in 2016. Staying with the London area, the constituencies of the Essex fringe (Ilford South, Hornchurch & Upminster, Romford) are struggling to break 1 per cent, and some (Dagenham & Rainham) have yet to manage half that. You can see similar figures out west by Heathrow.

And you can see the same pattern in the rest of the country too: urban and university constituencies signing in droves, suburban and town ones not bothering. The only surprise here is that rural ones generally seem to be somewhere in between.

The blue bit means my mouse was hovering over that constituency when I did the screenshot, but I can’t be arsed to redo.

One odd exception to this pattern is the West Midlands, where even in the urban core nobody seems that bothered. No idea, frankly, but interesting, in its way:

Late last year another Brexit-based petition took off, this one in favour of No Deal. It’s still going, at time of writing, albeit only a third the size of the Revoke Article 50 one and growing much more slowly.

So how does that look on the map? Like this:

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of an inversion of the new one: No Deal is most popular in suburban and rural constituencies, while urban and university seats don’t much fancy it. You can see that most clearly by zooming in on London again:

Those outer east London constituencies in which people don’t want to revoke Article 50? They are, comparatively speaking, mad for No Deal Brexit.

The word “comparatively” is important here: far fewer people have signed the No Deal one, so even in those Brexit-y Essex fringe constituencies, the actual number of people signing it is pretty similar the number saying Revoke. But nonetheless, what these two maps suggest to me is that the new political geography revealed by the referendum is still largely with us.


In the 20 minutes it’s taken me to write this, the number of signatures on the Revoke Article 50 has risen to 1,088,822, by the way. Will of the people my arse.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.