Those who think being “business friendly” (or “Conservative Lite” as I like to call it) is the way forward for the UK Liberal Democrats should keep a close eye on the German Federal Election this weekend.
The Lib-Dems’ long-term European ally the Free Democrats may be effectively wiped out at the election by failing to meet the 5% hurdle to enter Parliament and remain in the governing Coalition.
Essentially the FDP’s support has either drifted to the majority party with whom it has been in Coalition on and off for a generation (the CDU under Angela Merkel) or it has wandered off to a variety of other options on both left and right, according to whichever way members of the party’s somewhat amorphous supporter base lean.
The same fate applied to the Australian Democrats a while back, when they got too close to the then Conservative government and passed a regressive tax package, although leadership wrangling played just as much of a role in their demise.
Back to the future: the day Tony Benn predicted the Lib-Dem’s current crisis to me.
I well remember chatting for some time to Tony Benn at a Liberal Party conference at Harrogate deep in the last millennium, at which he was addressing a fringe meeting.
Opinions on Benn differ – I considered and still consider him a national treasure, and I read his famous diaries voraciously – in a discursive conversation that especially covered his views on the essential non-independence of elected Governments, which his Wikipedia entry summaries as follows:
By the end of the 1970s, Benn had migrated to the left wing of the Labour Party. He attributed this political shift to his experience as a Cabinet Minister in the 1964–1970 Labour Government.
Benn quoted four lessons:
1) how “the Civil Service can frustrate the policies and decisions of popularly elected governments”;
2) the centralised nature of the Labour Party allowing to the Leader to run “the Party almost as if it were his personal kingdom”;
3) “the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour Government”; and
4) the power of the media, which “like the power of the medieveal Church, ensures that events of the day are always presented from the point of the view of those who enjoy economic privilege.
As regards the power of industrialists and bankers, Benn remarked:
“Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes by the unions is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure.
These [four] lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.”
That was essentially Benn’s thesis as we talked. He shared a few examples which it would be inappropriate for me to repeat here, as it was a private conversation. I was left profoundly convinced that – even though I disagreed with much of his prescriptions to solve these obvious problems – his analysis of the hidden state-behind-the-state that influenced the public behaviour of governments was totally accurate.
I genuinely don’t think it was his obvious charisma and passion that led me to conclude he was correct, although Benn is undoubtedly a very attractive and convincing individual, especially for a young Parliamentary candidate in his twenties. It was more that the stories he told me simply “rang true”.
As I nursed a pint and Benn enjoyed his perennial mug of strong tea and a pipe – he has been both a lifelong teetotaller and longtime pipe smoker – the conversation moved onto the manner in which essentially left wing parties may nevertheless sometimes be required to enact unpopular social policies, specifically cutting public expenditure as the wider macro-economic situation demanded.
I have never forgotten these words
And Benn said something to me that I have never forgotten, and which I later heard him repeat on various occasions on TV in the coming years, especially as Labour sunk deeper and deeper into the Blairite fog.
I am paraphrasing, but it ran thus:
“We are not the bastards” he said, somewhat whimsically. “The public know we are not the bastards. When we try and act like bastards, we do a poor job of it, and the public know our heart is not really in it. If they want the bastards, they’ll vote for the real ones – the Tories. If we try and pretend to be Tories, they’ll simply kick us out and go get the real thing.”
This weekend, the FDP will pay the ultimate price for deserting their community-focused, small business friendly, “small is beautiful”, environmentally aware, co-operative roots. They will be decimated, and may well end up a footnote to history.
The Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg and the right-leaning cabal he has gathered around him – or the Lib Dems led by someone else – should listen and learn, or they will face the same fate – and frankly, what’s more, they will deserve to.
“They don’t want us to pretend to be the bastards.
If they want the bastards, they’ll vote for them.”
Liberal Democrats: you have been warned. Don’t say you weren’t.
“What’s the similarity between Becks and the FDP? They’ve both got 4.9%.” Oh, those crazy whacky Germans, eh? How cruel to say they don’t have a sense of humour.
Well, our direst forecasts have proven correct. As has Benn’s essential thesis. Some 2.2 million FDP voters switched directly from the FDP to Merkel’s ruling CDU to deliver her one of the biggest election victories since the war.
(An interesting aside: If she stays in power for the next four years, as she has said she intends to, she will pass Margaret Thatcher’s record as the longest serving female leader in modern European electoral history.)
The FDP’s vote collapsed to 4.9%, tantalisingly close to the 5% they needed to ensure survival, and denying it seats in the lower house of the Bundestag, effectively making them and the country’s Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler (ironic, huh? Vice Chancellor … Deputy Prime Minister … geddit?) utterly irrelevant to Germany moving forward.
And by the by, denying Merkel a natural coalition partner despite her electoral triumph; she will now have to laboriously try and stitch together either a “Grand Coalition” with her natural rivals the SDP, or cobble together an arrangement with the Greens.
Both options look problematical. Ironically, Merkel now has both unparalleled authority in her country, and a real chance that she may struggle to govern effectively, which given Germany’s key role in re-shaping the Eurozone is hardly good news both for Europeans and the rest of the world who are hoping that the economies Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal et al are going to continue to avoid collapsing entirely, which would plunge the world back into a credit crisis.
Vince Cable – a burr under Clegg’s saddle, but wisely so.
After four years of bickering and failure to deliver on its tax-cutting pledges German voters overwhelmingly bled to the “real bastards” (exactly as explained above) and for those who couldn’t make that switch there were a variety of more left-wing options to try. What they didn’t do was stay with a party that didn’t seem to know why it exists.
We maintain the Lib Dems need to work much harder on effectively differentiating themselves from their larger Coalition partner or face the same fate.
Buying the Tories’ free market schtick holus bolus is most certainly not the way to do that.
Senior economic spokesman Vince Cable is often criticised by those on the right of the party for his often mournful warnings that the Tories talk at least as much crap as they do good sense about reducing deficits and applying austerity measures to cure the country of its bloated welfare culture.
As Cable has appositely pointed out, Jeremiah might have been a miserable old curmurdgeon, but his famously depressing prophesies were correct.
Meanwhile, Merkel’s continuing onward march gives us an excuse to tell again our very favourite completely politically incorrect joke.
So Angela Merkel turns up in her stretched Mercedes at the border with Greece.
An Immigration Officer wanders over to the car. “Name?”
“Angela Merkel,” says the Chancellor as she passes over her passport.
“Occupation?” asks the officer, as he flips through the pages.
“No, ” smiles Merkel sweetly, “just a holiday this time.”
FOOTNOTE: We were saddened to see that the seemingly indomitable Tony Benn was admitted to hospital this week after feeling unwell. Let us hope he recovers fully and our thoughts are with him and his family. Agree with him or not, his contribution to modern political debate in the UK and beyond has been colossal. We are also reminded of his famous quip in 2001 that he was retiring as an MP “to concentrate on politics”. Maybe Nick Clegg should view the Deputy Prime ministership with similar askance humour sometime soon.