Opinion: we must learn lessons from German Greens

It is interesting to note last weekend’s election results from Germany in the context of Nick Clegg and David Laws’ attempts to turn the Liberal Democrats into an economic liberal party. There is an economic liberal party in Germany – it’s called the Free Democratic Party (FDP). On Sunday in state elections in Baden-Württemberg and in Rhineland-Palatinate they got trounced. In the former poll they barely made it into the state parliament with 5.3% of the vote; in the latter they didn’t cross the 5% threshold and are no longer represented.

One thing that has changed in Germany is that the Greens are now a credible alternative. They governed the country in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) from 1998 to 2005. They now lead the Green-SPD coalition in Baden-Württemberg and are coalition partners in six out of 16 state governments. According to a recent opinion poll in Stern magazine 63% of Germans believe the Greens are “indispensible”. Nationally the Greens are now the third party not the FDP.

It’s perfectly plausible to conclude therefore that voters in Germany are rejecting the sort of economic liberalism that the FDP stands for and instead backing the progressive, socially liberal, environmentally aware, social democratic policies that the German Greens espouse and that the British Liberal Democrats always used to stand for. And that seems to me to be an excellent lesson from Germany for Nick Clegg and David Laws. Don’t be fooled into thinking that voters want more economic liberalism. They don’t.

Alexis Rowell is a former Lib Dem councillor in the London Borough of Camden

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34 Comments

  • Daniel Furr 5th Apr '11 - 6:15pm

    ‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that voters want more economic liberalism. They don’t.’

    Can you give me examples? I’ve seen nothing to suggest the British people want a big government and high public spending. Individuals are quite aspirational, including in the most poorest parts. Social liberalism cannot provide the true policies to unlock the potential because they believe the government is best placed; not the markets or the people.

    German Greens completely contradict us and are a bad comparison to the Liberal Democrats. Green politics is not a centrist platform.

  • The Scottish Green Party are making a landgrab for the Lib Dem vote…

  • Ed Maxfield 5th Apr '11 - 8:35pm

    It’s likely that the most important lesson will turn out to be dont base your decisions about long term strategy on the outcomes of one set of local elections. The Green vote can go down as well as up.

    And at the last set of parliamentary elections the FDP got its best result for decades. Which is no more of an indicator of what the British Lib Dems should do than the FDP performance in B-W.

  • Hmm…
    We should follow the German greens?
    – phase out all nuclear power, leaving us with a huge energy gap
    – strongly reinforced European central economic and financial control, a massive vote loser
    – facilitation of unqualified immigration from outside the EU.

  • paul barker 5th Apr '11 - 9:01pm

    If you want to know Nick Cleggs “plans” for the Libdems why not listen to what he says rather than what Labour & their pals in the MSM say he says. The FDP have always been been a much narrower movement than British Liberals, even before the merger with The SDP.

    Lets take a deep breath, wait for the results on May 6/7th & then consider how our long-term strategy looks.

  • Daniel Henry 5th Apr '11 - 9:19pm

    I think Paul Barker is right here.
    The OP has made big assumptions about Nick and David rather than asking them what they really stand for.

  • Old Codger Chris 5th Apr '11 - 10:40pm

    Whatever we think of the Greens they may be well placed to take some lefty Lib Dem votes, while UKIP may benefit from disaffected Conservatives who think their party is going soft, especially on Europe.

    Economic Liberalism has been the natural philosophy of the Conservative Party from Thatcherism onwards. I’m not sure there’s space for the Lib Dems as well.

    Perhaps the Greens and UKIP – who both support AV – would gain more from it than the Lib Dems?

  • “in the context of Nick Clegg and David Laws’ attempts to turn the Liberal Democrats into an economic liberal party. ”

    I lost the will to read on after this bit

    (I would describe myself as a social liberal BTW but this stuff is getting really tiresome)

  • Economic liberalism? What the UK needs is an economy.
    That’s the true lesson from Germany.

  • One important lesson we can also take from the Greens in Germany is how one can turn a stint in a coalition into a real stepping stone towards becoming established as a party of power. The main issue here is that while in government, the Greens had to do some pretty difficult things which very much went against their instincts – most notably, perhaps, the point where Joschka Fischer as the foreign minister played a high level role in brokering a German participation in allied action in Kosovo. This was the first time since WW II that Germany participated in a war abroad, and it went very much against the grain of traditional Green party ideology. In the long run, it brought the Greens more respect. I am not sure whether the LibDems’s current situation is a very close parallel, but one lesson we ought to learn from the German Greens is that the smaller coalition partner, especially one whose culture is very much defined by being a long-term opposition party, has to behave responsibly in government – in the long run, it will work better if the party shows itself as a party fit for government, not as a party which simply continues opposition from the government benches.

  • @Maria – I think you’re making the simple assumption that people in Britain – and particularly political journalists – understand the concept of a coalition. We had a coalition for 8 years in Scotland followed by minority government, in Wales there’s been a similar pattern, and yet journalists are simply unwilling – or, in my view, unable – to understand the idea of coalition.

    If a UK minister did what the German minister you mention did, he/she’d get hammered and mocked by the media for “ditching their principles” and “double standards” even when the media agreed with the stance taken. The fact that UK political reporting in both newspapers and television is, on the whole, incredibly poor (with a few honourable exceptions) is possibly the biggest risk to the UK political system at present.

    Back on topic, though, and the biggest lesson we can learn from the FDP is the effect coalition can have on the smaller party. The results speak for themselves.

  • KL –
    are you saying that we have to have one shape of politics because the British media are a bit slow to catch sometimes? I refuse to accept that premise. By the way, Joschka Fisher got a very bad press at the time – and he was an easy target, not least because he had a very dodgy past as a left-wing activist with rather uncomfortable links to extremists.

    I have nothing against learning from the FDP – but the LiBDems *aren’t* like them – no, not even the infampus ‘Orange Bookers’. In any case, it makes little sense to say that we can only learn from the current FDP coalition and dismissing the Greens in coalition as a model.

    Neither of these models is inevitable for us, nor ie either entirely comparable – and it’s up to the LibDems to work hard to take a route closer to that of the Greens than to that of the current FDP (remember, the FDP has a very good track record in earlier coalitions). But neither route is inevitable – and it makes little sense to argue about the possible outcome on the basis of a perceived or real similarity of political lines.

    The argument in the original article (in a simple way summed up as ‘leftish-greenish parties better than economic liberals) may look straightforward at first glance, but to be honest, it’s simply far too simplistic to make comparisons in this manner, or to draw any conclusions about the potential success (or otherwise) of different political directions in the LibDem party.

  • Geoffrey Pane – “A smaller state mean reducing benefits for the most vulnerable people.”

    No – a smaller State means ensuring that only the most vulnerable are those that receive benefits; not those who are quite capable of looking after themselves.

  • “The Green Party in Germany like the Green Party here is a far-left totally uncredible outfit or weirdos and hippies. ”

    That for me says it all about the Lib Dems. If you actually care to examine the policies of the Green party then you will find they are very much a modern-liberal party (see their policies on LVT and inheritance for example). The fact you all seem to think they’re far-left nut-jobs actually speaks more of your own position – a bunch of right-wing, unthinking, free-market-for-everything fundamentalists. I really am ashamed of myself for voting Lib Dem for the last decade.

  • Gareth,

    Yes that is a likely scenario for the fate of a purist economic liberal party; sadly that process of transformation into such a party, I perceive has already started and has been going on some years. The ascendency of the Orange Book into main stream Lib Dem orthodoxy, the current leadership and the Coalition government has simply ‘yanked’ the party further in that direction. Sadly the haemorrhaging of those like me who no longer recognise the party as resembling the one they joined and fought for all these years, will only send it further in that direction.

    Hywel

    If you want clap your hands to your ears and say “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you”, then that is up to you. Unless the leadership of the party sits up and takes notice, then it will be a failure of that leadership when the Lib Dems cease to be electable and the party splits. The oxymoron ‘radical centre’ party (Nick Clegg’s words) does not exist -almost by definition.

  • Do any of you want to rescue the party you believe(ed) in , if so get out of this co-ailition now … 5th of May we’ll all see what the great British public think of your party ( yes I’m not one of you but I believe in pluralism of political choice ) all makes for a balanced system of choice.

    but what your party has done is give camouflage to a series of ideological cuts that would never have been possible on a supply and demand basis .. do you all believe in tripling tuition fees , do you believe in fundamentally changing the NHS in the way your leader(s) have supported ( and there seems to be little in the open about them really going against Lansley as you have mandated them to do )

    I mean really , what are you getting out of this co-alition .. sure there might be some advantages but are they worth it, worth the damage to your party , damage to your aspirations for the country and your fellow citizens ?

    Furthermore can you not see what is happening how you are until now detoxifying the Tory image at a huge cost to your party …

    I think the answers to these q’s are really self explanatory unless you all think ALL of the media is biased against you .. check out the national feelings on the 5th of May .. and if it looks as though I’m right damn well do something about it.

    In search of a fair world , ( I know I’m dreaming but its worth it ) and from well meaning and honest hearted people from any political persuasion lets do it eh folks but this current situation with your current leadership is not in anyones interest even with the mess we all found ouselves in WHOEVER caused it

    Ciao

  • While I have some sympathy with the argument Alexis makes, as some posting make clear, the situation is not directly comparable. Maybe this is a time to quote well known leftie Billy Bragg:

    I went out drinking with Thomas Paine
    He said that all revolutions are not the same
    They are as different as the cultures
    That give them birth
    For no one idea
    Can solve every problem on Earth
    So don’t expect it all to happen
    In some prophesized political fashion
    For people are different
    And so are nations
    You can borrow ideas
    But you can’t borrow situations

  • I hate to say it but your leader is writing the longest political suicide note in history. All of this talk of tough decisions and getting his hands dirty. his hands aren’t dirty but other peoples life chances are being ruined by the con dammed administration. How many people will die as a result of this experiment in liberalism in the health service? How many people will miss out on an education because of tuition fees.
    No one has a mandate for any of these policies. It government by electoral dictatorship. I note that nothing is being done to remove the king like powers of the prime minister or the executive. That is the real change needed in the UK a strong counter balance to the power of the prime minister and the executive.

  • @Stephen W

    Having had a look at the Green’s policies on health I’ve come to the conclusion that they are barking mad and dangerous on the subject. However, they are a young party and with time will hopefully attract some more scientifically-minded members who might sway some of their nuttier policies.

    However, this Country is in a complete economic mess as a result of economic liberalism. The cancer that caused the problems has been bailed out to the tune of hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money; money that could have been invested more wisely in projects to stimulate the economy and provide effective paths to future competitiveness and productivity. Instead it’s been used to sustain the exorbitant lifestyles of a bunch of chancer, wideboy, poorly-educated, sociopathic, low-life, losers with a sense of entitlement. Why should the productive economy of this Country be continually raped by the City? How is that a recipe for future prosperity and sustainability? Why do you assume, in the face of an economic meltdown caused by the misallocation of resources by the private sector, that tax rises arre a drain on the economy? Do you really think a democratic government is worse at providing value for money than the sections of the private sector that caused our economic woes?

    Why would raising the higher rates of tax destroy the economy, when in reality our competitiveness as a Country and aspirations of the population have been dragged in to the gutter by the widening welath and income inequalities? How do the Greens’ policies of increased investment for public transport and plans to drive down train fares square with your idea that they would drive up costs of travel for “poor people” (you sound like a Victorian Tory)?

  • Alexis Rowell 7th Apr '11 - 12:45pm

    Thanks for all your comments. I should stress that I did not write that piece to talk up or about the British Greens – I was talking about how the Green Party in the Germany has matured in recent years. It is now seen as Germany’s third party, which, I think, contradicts the argument that green politics can’t be centrist ie appeal to a mass audience. By contrast the FDP, which is indeed a narrower party than the Lib Dems as Paul Barker points out, has gone backwards and is now in all kinds of trouble. My article was simply a warning that the Lib Dems should neither go in that direction nor be perceived to be going in that direction, which is, I think, what’s actually happening. See here for more from Der Spiegel on the German Greens and the FDP: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,753642,00.html

    Compare the programme of the German Greens with the policies the Lib Dems fought the 2005 and (slightly less so) the 2010 elections on. They’re very similar. Strong environmental policies, anti-nuclear (see here for my take on why the Lib Dems have alway been right to oppose nuclear – even before Fukushima: http://www.cuttingthecarbon.co.uk/news/why-nuclear-is-not-the-answer), internationalist, localist, social democratic, social liberal.

    The German Greens are NOT anti-business but they’re not afraid to intervene in markets when necessary, which in my opinion is most of the time. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” still reads well 40 years on.

    BTW I’m afraid I really don’t agree with David Pollard that Chris Huhne is doing enough to fight the green fight at DECC but that’s another, longer conversation. See here for my take on a budget that was about as green as the inside of a coal mine: http://www.cuttingthecarbon.co.uk/news/24/101

  • Ed Maxfield 8th Apr '11 - 1:50am

    Ive returned to this rather late but I’ll reply anyway. Gareth – that is exactly the point I was trying to make! To take a single set of elections (in this case second tier elections) in a different country and try to read across into the long term of UK politics is frankly bonkers. There were specific reasons why the FDP did badly in B-W just as there were specific reasons why they did so well in the last Federal elections. None of it shows that the FDP is in permanent decline or that the German Greens are in permanent ascendency.

    I am not advocating that the Lib Dems adopt the same political strategy as the FDP. Quite clearly they have consistently polled far fewer votes than the Lib Dems over the last 30 years or so. This is less of a problem for them because Germany has PR, a point I often make when discussions about the supposed ‘FDP Strategy’ comes up. Deliberately and repeatedly targeting your own political constituency for attack is a pretty dumb strategy if you dont have a credible plan for acquiring a new constituency sharpish.

    Equally, I have argued elsewhere that it is pointless to aim for permanent opposition and/or ideological purity in order to remain relatively popular. What matters is what you do with power when you have it. That, and having a party leadership that at least gives the impression of knowing its a**e from its elbow so that party members arent panicked into advocating daft short term illusions like copying the German Greens!

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