The Bavarian Christian Social Union: a model for Scottish Labour?

The Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) is, one analyst says, “the most successful party in Germany.” It has held sway with absolute majorities in the Landtag (state parliament) almost uninterrupted since its formation after WW2. It occupies a disproportionate three seats in CDU-led cabinets, including in Angela Merkel’s current grand coalition. It has helped transform the Bavarian economy while retaining the state’s distinctive conservative culture – summed up in the mantra “laptops and Lederhosen.”

Hardly surprising then that some commentators, even some politicians, have begun arguing that the CSU could be a model for Scottish Labour as it seeks to recover from the drubbing at the polls on May 7 (and long before).

After all, it has a deal with the much bigger CDU that gives it sole rights to organize for the traditional right-wing in Bavaria, but the two work together as the Unionsfraktion in the federal parliament, an arrangement that enables it to be a regional party with a federal reach. It can be incumbent in Munich and Berlin but act as insurgent (occasionally) from the Bavarian capital. Sounds familiar?

The deal with the CSU – not a formal merger – has withstood periods of severe tension, such as in the mid 1970s when Franz-Josef Strauss, its wildly ambitious but volatile leader, dropped the link for a few months in 1976 and threatened to organise outside Bavaria to take on the CDU as a rival, not sister party. Strauss, a realist, dumped the idea when Helmut Kohl threatened in turn to send CDU cadres into Bavaria. A flurry of interest in taking on the CDU in East Germany post-1989, notably in fiercely proud Saxony, was even briefer.

Similarly, grand CSU plans to control its relationship with its much bigger sister via the federal chancellery have turned to dust. Both Strauss, a big figure physically and politically, and Edmund Stoiber, a successor as CSU boss and Bavarian premier, failed dismally when they ran as Kanzlerkandidat (1980 and 2002); indeed, Stoiber was soon driven out of office in Munich by the CSU barons, and the party headed for its worst election results at both regional and federal level. (It has since regained its absolute majority.)

Politically, of course, there are stark differences between Scottish Labour and the CSU. The Bavarian party, which is built on the legacy of the (Catholic) Bavarian People’s Party, remains deeply rooted in Catholicism; it is very pro-family (but increasingly relaxed; its current chief, Horst Seehofer, has admitted to having an illegitimate child). It adopts reactionary positions (rechtspopulistisch) on issues like immigration (“they should speak German in public and at home, in private” was one brief policy) and refugees. It backs Merkel’s pro-austerity fiscal policy aimed at producing permanent budget surpluses but is far from neo-liberal, favouring state intervention to promote Bavarian enterprise: the classic social market economy (or ordoliberal) position. It is pro-federalist but, especially under Stoiber, drifted towards Eurosceptic (Europe of Nations) positions (subsidiarity is, after all, a Catholic notion).

But it undoubtedly has lessons for Scottish Labour – not least in its ability to retain as many as 150,000 members drawn from a wide spectrum of Bavarian society, including (not that many) trade unionists as well as farmers, small business owners, public servants etc. It is centre-right but independent of the CDU, particularly on social issues and, occasionally, on Europe and defence. Its deal with the CDU indeed allows it to look after its own interests – and those of Bavaria. Indeed, like the SNP, it has successfully conflated the Land with the Party: Bayern ist die CSU, die CSU ist Bayern. And squeezed out parties to the right (Republikaner) and left (SPD, reduced to a dwindling 20% share of polls).

Labour might ask itself: Is this the model we wish to adopt? It works in Bavaria, clearly. But would it work in Scotland – and the UK?

This post first appeared on the Labour Hame website and is re-published here with permission.

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