Germany's SPD leans left before congress

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BERLIN, Oct 24 (Reuters) Germany's Social Democrats have leaned to the left ahead of a party congress starting on Friday to win back voters angry at painful economic reforms.

The SPD's support has slumped below 30 per cent and chairman Kurt Beck, after months of criticism of weak leadership, pounded his fist on the table last week and put forward proposals to change a pillar of the coalition government's ''Agenda 2010''.

Beck's plan to extend the length of jobless benefits for older workers to 24 months is not a major shift but it cheered the SPD's left wing which has felt ignored in the SPD's coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Beck will likely win a comfortable majority for the proposal from the congress in Hamburg, where 525 delegates will also vote on Beck and three deputy chairs who are all running uncontested.

The government's plans to partially privatise the railways and Germany's participation in a peacekeeping mission to Afghanistan are also key themes at the three-day meeting.

Extending jobless benefits was an about-face for the SPD that adopted reform policies favourable to business under ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder four years ago. They have since suffered a string of electoral defeats as a result.

Beck, a centrist and the SPD's likely candidate for chancellor in 2009, says the SPD is fed up with Merkel's CDU grabbing the glory for the coalition's achievements.

''Merkel and the conservatives even try to claim credit for the accomplishments of SPD ministers,'' said Beck. ''That's not good for the coalition's climate.

''There's been a lack of fairness,'' the 58-year-old, a trained electrician, added in an interview with the Neue Presse newspaper. ''It's a mistake and endangers the ability of the coalition to function.'' Merkel's conservatives criticised the shift left and Beck's complaints about the climate in the coalition. It is far from clear if his plan to extend jobless benefits will become law.

Manfred Guellner, managing director of the Forsa polling institute, said Beck's change of stance is going down well with the party's shrinking membership but will turn mainstream voters off. The SPD has, however, recovered slightly in recent polls.

''Beck has decided to satisfy the party's soul by rolling backwards to the left,'' Guellner said. ''But it's unlikely to help them with the electorate.'' Guellner said the SPD needs 20 million votes in 2009 if it wants to beat the CDU. By shifting left, he said it will keep the 11 million core SPD voters happy but lose the middle ground.

''An SPD renaissance under Beck seems unlikely,'' he said.

REUTERS SG RK2108

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