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.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.