Can Cameron take comfort from Merkel’s victory?

Backbencher September 28, 2013 0
Can Cameron take comfort from Merkel’s victory?

Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU were re-elected earlier this week with their best result since 1990. Will David Cameron’s Conservatives be able to perform a similar feat?

Before the 2010 UK election, David Cameron visited Angela Merkel for advice. With the prospect of becoming a Prime Minister without a majority almost a certainty, Cameron asked Merkel what it was like leading a coalition with a smaller, liberal party (as was the case in Germany up until this week). Her reply: “the little party always gets smashed”. It is hard to find a more concise six word summary of the 2013 German election.

Merkel emerged triumphant, becoming the longest serving European female head of government since Margaret Thatcher. Few national leaders have emerged from the economic crisis with their careers unscathed and even fewer have managed to actually increase their share of the vote. The election result is precisely the sort which many Tory strategists hope to see in 2015: the new Eurosceptic party failed to win a single seat and their liberal coalition partners suffered a wipeout. The final results produced 311 seats for the CDU/CSU, 192 seats for the Social Democrats, 64 seats for the Left Party and 63 seats for the Green party. The FDP tumbled from 93 seats to 0 overnight.

For many years the Liberal Democrats must have envied the FDP’s success. Being the traditional kingmakers of German politics, the FDP occupied the precise position the Liberal Democrats have long sought. It has resulted in them being in government longer than any other party. Now the FDP lie crumpled, having failed to win a single seat for the first time in the party’s history.

To some extent this is simply replicating a pattern across the Western world. Left wing incumbents have fallen one-by-one, as voters decide that they simply cannot afford left wing governments during a time of crisis, most recently this month in Australia and Norway. In other countries, such as Germany New Zealand and Canada, right wing governments have increased their share of the vote despite being in power during the financial crisis.

What, if anything, does this bode for the UK? In all likelihood: very little. The Liberal Democrats will not share the FDP’s fate of a total wipeout. The electoral system in Germany delivers proportional representation, but only for parties that get above 5% of the national vote. The FDP got 4.8%. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats will likely retain a disproportionate number of their seats due to local issues and the incumbency advantage.

And what of the Conservative party? Will they be re-elected with a larger share of the vote or will an anti-incumbent mind-set push them out of office? In the countries in which right wing governments have been re-elected, living standards have been rising and economic growth has been robust. In Germany in particular, unemployment is now the lowest for decades. By contrast, in the UK real wages have been falling for 38 of the last 39 months and GDP remains below its pre-crisis peak. Though growth over the last quarter has produced the prospect of rising living standards for the first time in years, nothing is certain.

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This links in to the UKIP-AfD comparison. The AfD’s description as a “bourgeois party of protest” could similarly apply to UKIP, though as the AfD failed to win a single seat this week many in UKIP will likely not be pleased by the comparison. Will UKIP win MP’s at the next election or fizzle out before 2015? UKIP’s voting intention has been falling for months and by 2015 may be seen as a mid-term stroke of madness. Stranger things have been seen during the mid-terms. Back in 1981 the SDP-Liberal Alliance consistently outpolled Labour and the Tories for months!

Like many similar movements across Europe, UKIP’s strength has been based on its status as a receptacle for anti-establishment votes. In countries where living standards have risen, anti-establishment parties have floundered but in countries flatlining, perhaps most notably in Italy, new anti-establishment parties have made headway into the political landscape. If growth doesn’t recover in the UK, then it will be the Conservative party’s fate too.

Will Archdeacon

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