What the Lib Dems need to do to get back on track in 2013

Stopping the worst excesses of the Tories is not enough. The party needs radical new policies.

We’re bumping along in the polls at around 10 per cent, we have the most unpopular leader of all the major political parties, and in the last three Westminster by-elections we came third, fifth and eighth, losing our deposits in two of the three campaigns. You might think the Lib Dems go into 2013 with a large black cloud hanging overhead and an awful sense of impending doom. You’d be wrong.

The grassroots are surprisingly chipper. In the most recent Lib Dem Voice survey (fieldwork just before Christmas), 77 per cent of respondents said they continued to support the party being in coalition, 61 per cent said they thought the party was on the right course, and (hold onto your hats) 58 per cent said they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with Nick’s leadership.

How come? Well, partly it’s the Pollyanna lurking inside every Lib Dem. Doing less than spectacularly in mid-term polls is the default expectation for most grassroots members (even if by-election disaster after disaster is something of a novelty), so this doesn’t feel like particularly alien territory for most folk. It’s also true when you look at local election results – and when we think about the 2015 general election, we think of it at a local level – we’ve done rather better in 2013 than most people realise.

And many in the party genuinely look at the good things the Lib Dems have achieved in government – 2 million out of income tax altogether, the pupil premium, Green Investment Bank et al – and think actually, for doing all that, unpopularity is a price worth paying. And that’s a fair point. But I can’t help but feel the party may have listened to the Prime Minister’s call for the country to approach 2013 with a sense of realism and optimism a tad too literally.

So here’s my two pennies' worth for the next 12 months if the Lib Dems are going to get back on electoral track.

We have a ‘new’ positioning of the party as the only repository of both economic competence and social justice. Of course, it’s not new– Nick announced it at conference in September 2011. But it’s not really stuck has it? Might I suggest that this may have something to do with the fact that demonstrating economic competence during the worst economic malaise for 80 plus years is quite tricky? Ditto social fairness, when the last government before you has spent all the money, and you’ve got your coalition partners introducing a benefit cap and apparently encouraging words like ‘feckless’ and ‘workshy’ to be bandied about.

So if that’s the strategy, fine – but we’ll need some rather better communications to get it resonating than we’ve managed to date. Might I suggest ditching the HQ line of ‘the Lib Dems are working to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life’ for the rather snappier ‘Lib Dems represent the head and the heart’. Folk might actually remember that.

And while stopping the worst excesses of the Tories is as important as ever – the snoopers' charter being just a starter – that won’t be enough. Neither will shouting ‘well, what would you do then?’ on a continuous loop at the Labour Party. We need some new, exciting policy initiatives of our own. Our newly elected federal policy committee needs not just to be thinking about the general election manifesto for 2015. It need to be presenting conference very quickly with some radical new thinking for debate and agreement. And then we need to be presenting it to the country.

As a party, we spent too long on our non-differentiation strategy with our coalition ‘partners’ – and we are now similarly in danger of thinking that if we shout at the Tories about how awful they are for the next 30 months, all will be right in the world. It won’t. We have 12 months to show the country we are still the radical, reforming and creative political party the members all joined. And if we do that, combined with our record to date, we’ve got a half a chance.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Nick Clegg delivers a speech to the Centre Forum at The Commonwealth Club on December 17, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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Germany's election isn't about who will win, but who gets to join Merkel in government

Even small changes in vote share could affect who rules with the chancellor's CDU.

The leaves are falling and the ballot boxes are being given a final polish. It should be peak Wahlkampf. (Trust us Germans to have a word for "campaign" which sounds like something that should be barked by a soldier in a black-and-white film.)

Yet, instead of "peak campaign", with just days to go before polling day, we have an almost deadly dull one. Europe’s largest nation is being gripped by apathy. Even the politicians seem to have given up. Four years ago the then Social Democratic (SPD) challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, was so desperate to grab attention that he posed on a magazine front cover pulling the middle finger.

Instead Chancellor Merkel’s strategy of depoliticising the economic and social challenges Germany faces, and being endorsed as the steady mother of the nation, seems to once again be bearing fruit. Her Social Democratic contender has simply not been able to cut through.

So much so that for most voters the differences in policy agenda between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and her main challenger Martin Schulz’s SPD are hard to detect. Not least because the SPD has spent the past four years serving under Merkel as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition". It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish yourself when you have just spent the last four years agreeing in cabinet.

This is dangerous and careless in an age of economic and political insecurities where voter volatility has reached new heights, and the radical right-wing AfD is forecast to get a vote share in double figures – a tally that would make it the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

It’s business as usual for Merkel who has copied the playbook that so successfully delivered three victories: picking no fights and managing expectations. Why change a winning formula? She wants to carry on chasing the political legacy of her hero Helmut Kohl by securing a fourth term in office.

Once again the "safety first" strategy is paying off. Her CDU/CSU is on course with the polls showing a solid 17 per cent lead over Martin Schulz and the SPD.

Merkel may be cruising to victory, but Germany’s proportional electoral system means that she won’t be able to govern alone. Which means the most exciting question in the German election isn’t who is going to win, but with whom is Merkel going to form another government. All eyes are on the different combinations of parties that would provide the chancellor with a new majority.

As it stands, it is very likely that for the first time ever, the Bundestag will be host to six political parties. More dauntingly, it will also be the first time since the Second World War that members of the radical right-wing will be sat in the chamber. Arguably, this political setback may be seen as a failure of moderate forces to find the right political solutions for the refugee and financial crisis – the AfD is essentially the offspring of both – but it is also part of a wider populist surge in Europe and North America.

This fragmentation of the party system in Germany will make it a challenging task for CDU/CSU to form a coalition. However, with the return of the liberal, and pretty unashamedly neo-liberal FDP, Merkel can potentially revert to a traditional centre-right ally. This would please those in her party who have been sceptical of her socio-economic move to the left, and blame her for the rise of the right-wing populists.

A report by the University of Mannheim provides us with a useful, if firmly scholarly, political version of those dating compatibility quizzes we all like to do in idle lunch hours. It finds that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP would be a natural match. They would agree on 20 out of 38 of the main policy issues in German politics. 

On which issues would coalition partners agree/disagree?

Only the other traditional “bloc coalition” between the SPD and Greens, which lifted Gerhard Schröder into the chancellery in 1998, would do better, matched on 24 issues overall. The study matches preferences on key economic, social, domestic and foreign policy of all major political parties and maps potential areas of conflict for all realistic coalition options. But polls currently show that neither of the naturally fitting centre-right or centre-left blocs would have enough seats to make a coalition work.

Which leaves three possible scenarios. The most intriguing would be the "Jamaica coalition" of the CDU, FDP and Greens (so called because the three party colours are the same as the Jamaican flag). Such an option has never been tried before at the federal level but is currently in power in Schleswig-Holstein. Alternatively, Merkel could follow the example of Saxony-Anhalt and try governing with her own CDU/CSU alongside both the SPD and the Greens. However, the new study finds that a three-way pact would be more prone to conflict and harder to negotiate than any of the two-party options.

More than two parties in a coalition would be an interesting novelty at the federal level, but disagreement on individual policy areas is expected to be considerably greater. The so-called "traffic-light-coalition" of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP would agree on 11 topics, yet disagree on 20 issues. And on top of issue-specific conflicts it would be more difficult to bridge ideological differences between parties at the different ends of the left-right dimension, as such between the SPD and FDP.

In the end it will all depend on how the numbers play out on election day this Sunday. The fact is that even minor shifts in voting behaviour from the current poll predictions would make a major difference to the options for government formation.

So, what should you look out for on election night? I would suggest keeping an eye on the liberals. What happens to the FDP’s vote share is crucial for whether they can return to their role as coalition queenmaker, after failing to jump the 5 per cent hurdle in 2013 and ending up with no seats. If the business-friendly liberals cannot deliver a majority for Merkel, the ball will be firmly back in the SPD’s court.

Gerhard Schröder used to say that a chicken is fat at the end (it makes more sense in German).

But if Schulz’s campaign does not pick up momentum in the closing hours of the campaign, and the Social Democrats' vote share collapses to around 20 per cent, its leaders will find it difficult to justify another grand coalition to SPD members.

They will likely be once again asked to endorse any grand coalition with the traditional conservative enemy in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Many inside the party fear that another four years as junior partners to the strategically astute Merkel could be the end of the road for the Social Democrats.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network