There’s life yet in the European Liberals

Ben Margulies 

For some European liberal parties, the 2010s have been an arduous, disappointing decade. As one academic noted in a recent post on the LSE’s European politics blog, the last five years have seen the precipitous decline of Germany’s venerable Free Democrats (FDP), expelled from the Bundestag in 2013 for the first time, and from many state parliaments since. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats began the 2010s with a surge in popularity, 23% of the vote and their first Cabinet seats since 1945. Five years later, they emerged from the 2015 general election with eight seats, having shed about two-thirds of their electorate. And at least these parties made it to 2010 – Ireland’s liberal Progressive Democrats won but two seats in the 2007 general elections, and dissolved two years later.

But though many European liberal parties are indeed ailing, predictions of the party family’s demise are almost certainly premature. Liberal decline has tended to be worst in Europe’s larger nation-states, and has claimed two very prominent victims in the German FDP and the British Liberal Democrats. But elsewhere, liberal parties, including some new entrants into the political arena, are prospering. In Austria, NEOS-The New Austria entered the National Council at the 2013 elections with nearly 5% of the vote. In Iceland, Bright Future, another new liberal party, won six seats (out of 63) in elections the same year. All three of the Low Countries are governed by liberal prime ministers at present.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) has recently welcomed a number of strong new member parties from Eastern and Southern Europe. The new Modern Centre Party, which won the 2014 Slovenian general elections within a few weeks of its founding, is now an ALDE member. The Reform Party of Estonia recently won a fifth term as the leading party in the governing coalition.

Perhaps most notable in recent months has been the meteoric rise of Ciudadanos-The Party of the Citizens, a Spanish centrist party and ALDE member originally focused on Catalonia (where it represented the center on the center-periphery cleavage, opposing the Catalan nationalist parties). Now competing across Spain on a platform of liberalizing reform, it is nearly level with both with establishment Popular Party and Socialists and the left-populist Podemos. Ciudadanos may soon become the Continent’s most prominent liberal grouping. Ciudadanos’ explosive success was foreshadowed by the more modest inroads made by another new liberal grouping – Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD) – which won a seat in the 2008 general elections and five at the 2011 polls.

The German FDP and British Liberal Democrats faltered less due to secular changes in the electorate than tactical and strategic errors in office. The Liberal Democrats betrayed their best-publicised electoral pledge in their rush to make Britain’s first peacetime coalition work. The FDP was hurt by an unpopular leader and a belief that it had veered too far to the right; the current party leadership appears to be attempting to correct this.

Why might liberal parties have a brighter future than the German and British cases would otherwise suggest? Perhaps the greatest reason for the optimism is the sort of social changes that have proved so corrosive to other established parties. (For a more detailed examination of this argument, please see my article in the Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, The future of the liberal party family: a survey of new liberal parties and other trends.”) In the last half-century, globalization, the transition to post-industrial economies, and increasing social fragmentation have eroded traditional class and confessional identities. This de-alignment has led to a steady increase in party-system fragmentation, and a steady decline in support for many established parties, especially in the social democratic family. It has also led to greater electoral volatility, as noted by Peter Mair in Ruling the Void (2011).

Liberal parties, old and new, do not have strong class, demographic or other inherited social identifications. Liberal parties have traditionally been “bourgeois” or middle class parties, and in some countries may be identified with business interests (for example, the German FDP). But for the most part, the liberals’ lack a strong class, demographic, occupational or confessional identity, just at the time when most voters are also shedding those same identities. As such, they may be very well positioned to become the “catch-all” parties of the future. The success of NEOS in Austria may prove a key example in this regard – Austrian politics is notable for its domination by two traditional class- and confession-based parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Christian People’s Party (ÖVP), with protest votes going to the once liberal, now right-populist Freedom Party (FPÖ).

Liberal parties may also be well placed to adapt to competition along the post-materialist cleavage. This cleavage is sometimes defined as being between two sets of values-based positions: a left-libertarian camp defined by support for environmentalism and human rights, and a right-authoritarian position supportive of traditional hierarchies and authorities and hostile to outgroups. Though the left-libertarian camp is usually identified with Green parties, its focus on human rights is shared by liberals too. As Giger and Nelson (2010) note, the growth of post-materialist voting will benefit both “left-libertarian and market-liberal parties.” Though, as Marino argues, liberal parties may be losing votes to Green parties or protest parties in some nations, in others liberal parties are proving successful in spite of the presence of Greens. The Democrats ’66, a left-liberal party, made large gains at the recent Dutch provincial elections, while the Greens suffered losses, continuing a pattern observed in the 2012 general elections.

That brings me neatly to another point that favours a bright liberal future, which is the triumph of free-market politics. Mair pointed out in Ruling the Void that established parties have, since the fall of Communism, converged around a free-market consensus. This consensus undermines social democratic parties, who have lost much of their raison d’etre, but suits liberal parties much better. This is especially true if they are able to portray their liberal platform as a strike against vested interests, coddled by the old welfare state or clientelist practices, as Ciudadanos does in Spain and the supporters of Mario Monti did in Italy. This is true even outside Europe – Bruce Cumings explains that South Korean liberals embraced a painful IMF structural adjustment programme in 1997-98 because it undermined the country’s oligopolistic chaebol mega-corporations.

That said, the liberal future could easily portend as much pain as it does hope. For many liberal parties, the lack of a clear class, occupational, or demographic identity is a great advantage; it makes them attractive to many different types of voter and dissociates them from the established political parties and their hidebound ideologies and interests. But it also leaves liberal parties vulnerable to sudden shifts of opinion. Every poor policy decision made by a liberal party risks a rapid erosion of support, much more so than a similar error made by a party with a stable base. As Robert Ford noted in a Guardian piece following the May 2015 UK general election, the Liberal Democrats paid dearly for their “lack of a loyal demographic core.” Liberal parties also carry much greater risks when they go into coalition; as they are often the smaller party, they may have to make more concessions, which increases their chances of alienating a fickle base intolerant of compromise.

All that said, there is much reason to believe that the liberal party family could thrive, or at least enjoy considerable success, in the coming decade. German and British liberals may indeed face an uncertain future, but this is as much due to tactical errors on their part and specific political conditions in each country as it is to secular decline in the liberal party family. The liberals’ future may be less grim than advertised.

Ben Margulies recently completed his doctorate at the University of Essex on the electoral behaviour of liberal parties. Previously he has worked as a policy researcher and his research focuses mainly on party systems, new political parties and populism.