Opinion: Nicht Schadenfreude, sondern Selbstverteidigung*

germany-flagThe exit of the Free Democrats [FDP] from the German Parliament for the first time since World War II is not just an unforeseen consequence of the spectacular success of Angela Merkel.  It is a significant setback for European Liberalism, even if our German counterparts have for a generation been outriders on the right of the Liberal spectrum.

Some detailed polling [German language] shows the significant movement of votes from the FDP to the Christian Democrats [CDU/CSU].  One significant difference to note here is that the UK Conservatives are notably more right-wing on the economy and environment than their German counterparts in particular, but broadly more liberal on social issues; this has arguably helped shunt the FDP into a cul-de-sac where they are seen as uncomfortably close to some business interests.  The trouble for them, though, is threefold: they:

  • Are too closely tied to being a coalition partner of one party: a ‘functional’ role not rooted in Liberal values, ever since their early 1980s decision to abandon the Social Democrats.
  • Have no real identification as to what they stand for (their record on civil liberties is weak, and their influence since the time of Hans-Dietrich Genscher on foreign policy has waned) and are seen instead as representing particular interests.
  • Failed to deliver key pledges in Government.

The polling also shows their current leadership is significantly less popular than their former leader Guido Westerwelle.

The views of former FDP voters on the FDP are stark:

  • Promised a lot and has done almost none of it – 90%
  • Cared too much about particular groups of voters – 82%
  • Hasn’t influenced anything in the last few years – 74%.

Due to this and also their reliance on the German PR system which guarantees seats in Parliament to parties getting 5% of the national vote, their vote is thinly spread (no wins in the constituency vote for years) and they have no grassroots base.  Increasingly their core vote has shifted too: and with a spate of disastrous results in regional parliamentary elections too, this result will see them losing much of the state funding on which they are reliant.

Critically (and perhaps the key lesson for the Liberal Democrats) it has been felt that the relatively strong German economic performance has been delivered by Frau Merkel without any discernible FDP input.  In that case, voters have said, why bother with the FDP?   A curious parallel with UK politics is that instead of praising the positive Liberal Democrat economic influence under Vince Cable, those associated with the Lib Dem leadership appear to have been undermining it.

To sum up: the parallels are not direct, but there are clear lessons for Liberals in the UK from the failures of their colleagues in Germany.  Deliver your promises; keep an identity to your values and in particular on the economy; keep your party motivated….. or face oblivion.

For a good read in English, see http://www.dw.de/fdp-a-post-war-fixture-is-out-of-parliament/a-17106509.  As a former resident of Berlin, I was pleased to see the failure of the anti-Europeans to secure 5% either.

* Not Schadenfreude, but self-defence



* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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  • Is it true that Nick Clegg is going to star as Unterseeboot Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock in a 2015 remake of the Kriegsmarine epic ‘Das Boot’? 🙂

  • A very interesting analysis thanks Gareth.

  • Good analysis and clear warning to Liberal Democrats. I wonder what the GPEW make of the result. The Green Party’s (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) misfortune is even more stark than the FDP’s. Two years ago, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the party hit 25 per cent support .On Sunday they came fourth behind The Left (Die Link) the rump of the communist SED. Commentators say that the Green party’s policy of tax rises for top income earners, and a focus on ‘left’ issues chasing The Left for votes, rather than concentrating on their USP of environmental policies, caused its decline.

  • Paul Pettinger 24th Sep '13 - 8:26pm

    Very good analysis Gareth – thank you. It’s almost like, rather than making it up as you go along, you have spent time as a Liberal Democrat thinking ahead about how the Party might best handle the challenges and opportunities of exercising power at Westminster.

  • After conference, one might be forgiven for wondering if it is possible that the majority of our Cabinet Ministers have in fact been voting with the Tories AGAINST Vince Cable’s influence on economic policy…

  • nigel quinton 25th Sep '13 - 2:12pm

    Excellent article Gareth. I cannot help wondering how we might score our current leadership against your ‘lessons to learn’ criteria:

    Deliver your promises: Hmmm – let’s not go there!
    Keep an identity to your values: Least said….
    and in particular on the economy: Are we really likely to get the credit any more than the FDP did?
    keep your party motivated…..: Oh scheisse.

  • Ich bin ein Cableista…

  • Tony Greaves 25th Sep '13 - 3:17pm

    The leadership had an excellent chance at Glasgow to distance themselves clearly from Tory economic policy and they muffed it. In practice they seem to be doing so slowly and shiftily (trying to hide it) which is daft. When the election comes they won’t be able to dodge it. If they are still lining up behind Osborne we will be (deservedly) shafted at the polls. But it can’t all be done in three weeks.


  • David Evans 26th Sep '13 - 3:18pm

    It is rare for me to disagree totally with Tony G, but here goes.

    @Tony Greaves

    “If they are still lining up behind Osborne we will be (deservedly) shafted at the polls.”

    has to be wrong.

    Surely it should say

    “If they are still lining up behind Osborne they deserve to be shafted at the polls. Most of us don’t deserve it.”

  • Snagglepus
    No but Ed Miliband might star as Sigmund Jähn in a remake of Goodbye Lenin.

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