5 reasons not to assume the FDP wipeout in the German elections will happen here in the UK

by Stephen Tall on September 23, 2013

An amazing result for Angela Merkel, increasing her vote and almost winning an absolute majority for the conservative CDU in her third election. A dire one for the liberal FDP, eliminated from the German Bundestag after failing to cross the 5% popular vote threshold – from 93 seats to 0 in one go. Ouch.

Part of the fun of elections in foreign countries is cherry-picking the bits of confirmation bias that suit our own weltenschaung. “Liberal party wiped out after coalition with centre-right party, eh – you just wait til 2015, Mr Clegg!” I’ve even seen a couple of parliamentarians – John Pugh and Lord Oakeshott – make the direct link. So here’s 5 reasons why such glib comparisons don’t stack up.

1) First, and I really can’t stress this point strongly enough, Germany is a different country. I could stop there, but here are another four reasons…

2) The FPD stormed to success in 2009 demanding tax cuts to stimulate the economy. Four years of squabbling with their coalition partners followed during which time the FDP failed to deliver any major tax cuts. By contrast the Lib Dems have delivered on the party’s number one election pledge, raising the personal allowance to £10,000 and taking millions out of the income tax system altogether.

3) The electoral system is completely different. Though Germany has proportional representation, that 5% threshold is crucial. Two parties, the liberal FDP and the anti-Euro AfD, both failed to meet it by a whisker (some 16% of German votes were discounted because they were cast for fringe parties). The FDP fell from 14.6% to 4.8%; the equivalent fall in the UK would see the Lib Dems’ 23% translate to 7% in 2015. But (1) the Lib Dems are very unlikely to lose two-thirds of our vote. And (2) our success in 2015 will depend less on vote share than on seat retention.

4) Where did the FDP votes go? In the UK, the Lib Dems have hemorrhaged votes to Labour since going into coalition with the Conservatives. In Germany, the direction of travel was mostly in the opposite direction: the FDP shed some 2.1 million votes to the two centre-right parties, the CDU/CSU and AfD, but only around 460,000 votes to the centre-left, SPD.

5) You say Germany, I say Norway. In the Norwegian elections this month, the liberal Venstre party – which campaigned explicitly for an end to the Red-Green ruling government, now replaced with a centre-right government – saw its vote rise and its parliamentary representation boosted from 2 to 9 seats. The comparison’s kinda flakey, of course, but never mind.

So there you go: 5 reasons not to draw any serious comparisons between Germany and the UK. Of course, it’s not impossible that the same fate might await the Lib Dems in 2015 as befell the FDP in 2013. (Though I’ve got a lot riding on that not happening…) And I’m not saying there aren’t lessons to be learned; there always are. But be careful they don’t get lost in translation.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.