It’s a liberal party, Jim, but not as we know it

Civic Platform’s convincing win in Poland’s General Election on Sunday is welcome news for liberals. A vote spread of 40% for the liberal centre; 30% for the conservative right and 12% for the social democratic left is the stuff of dreams from a British liberal perspective.

But strategists looking to emulate the success of Donald Tusk’s party here in the UK should beware of easy comparisons.

Civic Platform (PO) is pro-European and broadly liberal on civil liberties issues. But its economic recipe is made of Thatcherite ingredients that would be far too strong for British Liberal Democrat stomachs. Or for the wider British public. PO did less well than expected in the last Polish election in part because of its advocacy of a flat tax system which was seen as favouring the rich over the poor.

Political divides in Poland are a product of its immediate post-Communist past. The Catholic Church; corruption; the continuing role of former Communists in society; the welfare of the rural poor in general and pensioners in particular. All of these factors came together to produce the bizarre Kaczynski twins who, until the weekend, ran Poland as President and Prime Minister. Reaction against the Kaczynskis and their party, Law and Justice, propelled PO forward. The vote did not reflect an enthusiastic embrace of free market economics.

But it wasn’t just the Kaczynskis who caused POs success. The party benefitted from the other alternatives being divided and discredited. But PO worked at staying united and credible and organisationally strong. Notably, Donald Tusk also underwent a radical makeover to inject some charisma and excitement into the party leadership.

Liberal parties in Eastern Europe have experienced the same ups and downs as other political movements in the region. A regrettable trend has seen some of the more successful ones joining the European Peoples Party instead of ELDR. But it is important to remember that the parties in the region, and the societies they represent, have developed from a very different starting point than has Britain. If the Liberal Democrats are to learn the lessons from their successes and failures, it will be important to pick the right ones.

* Ed Maxfield is a Liberal Democrat member, and blogs here.

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  • Civic Platform has part of its roots in the liberal Freedom Union, the rest of which merged into the Democratic Party, which in this electon was part of the Left and Democrats electoral alliance along with a number of social democrat and ex-communist parties.

    It’s a pity that the constituent factions of the Freedom Union couldn’t agree on power sharing in the party. Freedom Union and later Democratic Party was a member of the ELDR, perhaps one reason why Civic Platform seeked for European friends elsewhere. But I hope that one day they could return to the European liberal family.

  • BTW, I have seen several comments in the Lib Dem blogs on Polish elections, but not much about the Swiss election, where the trend wasn’t as encouraging than in Poland. However, Switzerland has one of the world’s oldest and most influential (in long term) liberal parties, so I would have thought that what happens there would interest British Liberals.

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Oct '07 - 4:58pm

    If these central European parties prefer the economic theories of Thatcherism, and if they admire the politics of Aznar, Berlesconi and Sarkozy, then as far as I am concerned they are welcome to join the EPP, and ELDR should keep them out for as long as they remain that way.
    My Polish friends tell me that when you see a doctor in Poland you have to bribe him to get some treatment or a prescription. If you are poor, then no chance.
    That is the brutal reality of an underfunded “small state”.

  • Peter Bancroft 23rd Oct '07 - 4:59pm

    Successful liberal parties in Western Europe are centrist liberal coalitions which bring together a traditional core (often either agrarian or metropolitan) with a wider coalition of centrists and broadly liberal-minded people. I do think that we can say that these are models of liberal coalitions that we should aspire to.

    Successful liberal parties in Eastern Europe are either mass movements or intellectual elites who are centre-right and reforming, obviously in opposition to previously communist policies and occasionally genuine socialist left-wing opposition. There’s no model here for the UK to follow, but I think that it’s a lack of understanding that sometimes sees the Lib Dems criticising Eastern European govts for not trying to grow the state’s share of the economy just 15 years after the end of the USSR.

    Parties closest to the Lib Dems? Well, I’m going to be assertive and say that we’re not some weak social democrats (maybe the Swedish Soc Dems – though they’re more liberal than us on public services!), so maybe the near extinct Dutch D66 or the small Danish Radikal Venstre would be the closest models.

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Oct '07 - 5:09pm

    Answer to 4/ The Dutch D66 are very good, but the best recently has been VLD, See
    where Guy Verhofstadt was prime minister up until 2007.
    His foreign policy was a bold one, opposed to the war in Iraq and critical of US breaches of international law.

  • Kevin O'Connor 23rd Oct '07 - 5:27pm

    Whilst I don’t necessarily agree that a flat tax can be viewed as progressive automatically, I don’t believe we should balk at it in the way many Lib Dems do.

    Under our current taxation system we only have three bands of taxation, and one of those is going to be abolished. Would reducing this to one be so bad? Given the difference in the rates (22 and 40) you might think so.

    But then factor in the farce that is National Insurance and I genuinely get confused myself. National insurance is calculated on a weekly basis, rather than annually one that Income Tax is. But the point is that there is an upper limit on the main rate of National Insurance, which means (assuming as most sensible people do that National Insurance is Income Tax by another name) that you reach a point where the overall tax rate decreases.

    Then of course to further complicate things there are Gordon’s Tax Credits. I won’t get started on them as they would trun this comment into an article in its own right.

    Anyway, cutting to the chase if the two taxes were combined to a middling rate (30-35%?) with a generous personal threshold (10-15k?) then we could in a single stroke do three things:

    (i) increase tax for the highest earners
    (ii) decrease taxes for the lowest earners
    (iii) add some much needed clarity and simplicity to the tax system.

    If anyone is in doubt at the need of (iii) have a look at this:

    Like I say, its probably not the best solution but its not all as bad as our reflexes might make us think. I think we need to think more about this and debate it a bit.

    (apologies if the figures don’t add up etc as this is not properly researched but the ideas are their)

  • Jujupiter: “What party would be the closest to Liberal democrats in Europe? The Mouvement Democrate in France, I guess, and what else? Which one of them is currently at power?”

    I don’t think that the Mouvement démocrate can be compared with Liberal Democrats, it has christian Democrats roots. Closest equivalent in France would probably be Parti radical, which is associated to the UMP movement and is represented in the government. Other European parties close to Lib Dems could be People’s Party in Sweden, also part of the ruling coalition, Venstre in Norway, Det Radikale Venstre in Denmark and Democraten 66 in the Netherlands. Italy used to have similar parties as well, but the political party map there is changing so quickly that I have lost the count.

  • Sorry Peter Bancroft, I didn’t read your answer before replying to Jujupiter. If you by centrist coalitions with a traditional agrarian or metropolitan core mean the Centre Parties of Sweden, Finland and Estonia, I find it very difficult to find anything liberal from them, and I have lived in two of these countries.

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Oct '07 - 5:51pm

    This is a good source of information on the kind of thing we are discussing;

    So Tom @ 9/ You reckon the NHS is overfunded? You think there should be big cuts to allow tax reductions, AND the health service will be better?
    Do you have an example of where that works? Poland? USA?
    Please tell.

  • 13 – That might be a worth subject for Tom Papworth to write a whole piece about to LDV.

  • Peter Bancroft 23rd Oct '07 - 6:07pm

    Anon – I fully agree, perhaps I wasn’t precise enough in my language. The Scandinavian “Centrist” and the other pure agrarian parties of Europe are by and large not liberals (The Swedish Centre party are heading in the right direction though).

    My centrist I meant that these liberal parties (Danish Venstre, Finnish liberals,
    Canadian Liberals, Macedonian Liberals and even the Andorran liberals! – In fact, almost every liberal which is/has recently been in govt in the Western world/primarily Europe) attract everyone who identifies philosophically as a liberal, whether that be from a more “right-wing” or “left wing” perspective.

    They are therefore “of the centre” in that sometimes they’ll be disassembling a bloated welfare state and at other times they’ll be investing in public services. Verhofstadt’s VLD in the earlier years of his govt was a great example – his major contribution was to define his party as the liberal party against a series of illiberal parties.

    CK tried the same here in the UK (with the exact slogan), but it can’t be done with weak rhetoric defending our policies on the basis of them being “fair” or “just” or “effective”.

  • Peter Bancroft: “My centrist I meant that these liberal parties (Danish Venstre, Finnish liberals, Canadian Liberals, Macedonian Liberals and even the Andorran liberals! – In fact, almost every liberal which is/has recently been in govt in the Western world/primarily Europe)”

    Interesting, which party did you mean by “Finnish liberals”? There is a small party in Finland called Liberals, which is all that remains of the old liberal tradition in Finland, but it’s hardly successful, as it isn’t even represented in the parliament (and probably the reason why it isn’t anymore a member of LI, ELDR and ALDE is that it can’t even afford to pay the membership fees).

    Then there’s the Swedish People’s Party, which is a member of ELDR, LI and ALDE, but mainly represents the interests of the Swedish speaking minority, to which it’s support is mainly limited. It has occasionally some liberal policies, but as a coalition of Swedish speakers its membership is politically very mixed, and it can’t have many clear policies except those concerning the interests of the Swedish speaking minority. That’s also the reason why it has been part of the governing coalition, with any parties, most of the time since WWII.

    And finally there’s the Centre Party, which represents mainly the rural areas, and I think only joined the LI and ELDR because the Finnish seat in the conservative organisations was already taken by the National Coalition Party. Socially they are about as conservative, Centre Party being perhaps even slightly more conservative than the National Coalition Party, and economically National Coalition Party is clearly more liberal than the Centre Party.

  • “Much of what Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph say and do is in the mainstream of liberal philosophy.” – Jo Grimond, The Future of Liberalism (1980)

    We’d do well to remember that.

  • Bonkalot Jones 23rd Oct '07 - 7:34pm

    Cicero / Tim – And you wonder why the Libs are stuck on 11% ? I think you need to get back in touch with reality…

  • 16 – Cicero, The list you provided seems to be the member list of ELDR, not ALDE. It is good to remember that ALDE was founded, because somer parties, mainly UDF (current Democratic Movement) in France and Margherita (now part of the Democratic Party) in Italy didn’t want to join an upright liberal organisation.

    I would argue that, despite the rules of ELDR, most, but not all of the parties listed there are liberal. And there are liberal parties in Europe that for one reason or another aren’t members of ELDR, for instance Civic Platform of Poland, Freedom Union–Democratic Union (and several other tiny liberal splinter parties) of Czech Republic, G17 Plus of Serbia, Movement for Changes and Liberal Party of Montenegro, and possibly Fidesz of Hungary (though I’m not sure how liberal it currently is).

  • 19 – Bonkalot Jones, most of the most successful liberal parties in Europe are more or less market liberal, best examples currently being Venstre of Denmark and Reform Party of Estonia.

    And I would argue that the progress Lib Dems have slowly made has come hand in hand by slowly giving up the ecomically socialist-ish policies adopted perhaps as a reaction to the economically liberal, but socially conservative policies of Margaret Thatcher.

  • “Few others can match our vote share at elections – but they are more often participants in government because of PR.”

    Venstre in Denmark won 29,1% of the votes in 2005 and 31,3% in 2001, and Reform Party in Estonia won 27,8% this year. If we look further back, less than ten years ago (1998) the Dutch VVD got 24,7 of the votes, and before 1999 the Swiss FDP always had over 20% of the votes, though now it share has somewhat dropped.

    If PR in general elections was introduced in UK, No doubt that the share of votes of Liberal Democrats would drop because many voters would go for other small parties like Greens, but the share of the seats in the parliament might still rise.

    Of course a party isn’t actually successful if it hasn’t participated to a government for 85 years (well, 67, if we count Neville Chamberlain’s war cabinet), as it doesn’t have much to say how the things are run in the country.

    “Radical market solutions made sense intellectually as an exit strategy from Communism but support proved very shaky once the effects started to be felt on ordinary people’s jobs and standards of living – that’s pretty much what did for the UW in the first place.”

    I don’t think that’s actually quite a fair analysis, considering that Poland has changed governments in each elections since communism fell, and many once significant parties, liberal or not, have disappeared.

  • Bonkalot Jones 24th Oct '07 - 9:36am

    Great comments by Paul Linford on his blog..

    Any thoughts as to whether he is right or not ?

  • I have the understanding that Paul Linford is openly a Labourite. But I wish you had posted that to a more appropriate thread, we aren’t actually speaking here about the leadership candidates.

  • Well, it wasn’t me who used the party having under 3% of the votes as an example, though I symphatise it. The Irish political culture seems to favour the two traditional non-ideological parties.

    Of course being in the government eventually erodes the support, but there are market liberal parties in Europe which have been in the government for about a decade and still have their support in high twenties.

    Yes, as you say, there are odd examples of liberal parties scoring in the 20s elsewhere in Europe, but with the even odder exception of the British Liberal Democrats they are all market liberal parties. And Lib Dems are only polling so high because of the FPTP, because they channel most of the protest votes, which would otherwise spread to other small parties as well. Cometh PR and the support of Lib Dems willth collapse, unless they can find another role than being the coalition of the dissatisfied.

    You might want to point out that the Flemish VLD is polling high, though it is not a market liberal party. However, when its support reached its peak, it was a market liberal party. It has since then moved economically somewhat to the Left, but its support has also dropped. In the last federal election it lost about exactly the share that a right-liberal party which splitted from the VLD won (6,3% of the Flemish votes). At the same time, the Walloon MR has remained market liberal, and though it slightly lost support in the last federal election, it also became the biggest Walloon party.

  • Bonkalot Jones 24th Oct '07 - 9:43pm

    Having reviewed this blog, I can certainly see why Nick Clegg said that Lib Dems ‘Need to get out more..’, or something like that.

    Discussions of the most arcane topics under the sun, and a level of political wonkery, and an obsession with trivia and statistics that would make look like a ladies’ hairdressers..

    You do realise that the majority of the people who are trying to get to vote for you care 20% of f**k all about European Liberal parties, Georgists [?], Cicero, monetarists and the difference between an LDV [a type of van?] and an LVT [Whatever that may be ?].

    I am no fan of Tony Blair, but as someone once said of his political skill, ‘At least he speaks to the voters in English’.

    A lesson Lib Dems have, fortuitously, got years ahead of them to learn…

  • “an obsession with trivia and statistics that would make look like a ladies’ hairdressers..”

    I think that that is an overstatement. No place is as obsessed with trivia and statistics as, except perhaps UK Polling Report.


    LDV = Liberal Democrat Voice

    LVT = Land Value Tax

    VLD = Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (Flemish Liberals and Democrats)


  • One may be tempted to suggest its a liberal party but the LibDems aren’t, but that’s being a bit harsh.

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