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Andrew Marshall: Listen to Mutti. What Cameron can learn from Merkel and what the Conservatives can learn from the CDU.

Andrew_Marshall_head_and_shouldersAndrew Marshall is Managing Director of Cognito PR and Marketing, and a Conservative councillor in Camden. He writes here in a personal capacity. Follow Andrew on Twitter.

The latest polls in Germany put Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union) on 40-41%, up from 34% at the last election and more than 10% ahead of the opposition SPD.  Merkel appears in a commanding position ahead of September’s elections – and even if her new post-election junior partner is the SPD or the Greens, the policy shift will be limited.  Not bad for a party that’s been in government since 2005.  Not bad for a government that’s had to take unpopular decisions to help tackle the Eurozone crisis.  Indeed arguably the CDU, which has governed Germany for 44 of the last 63 years, is Europe’s most successful political party of the last half century.

So you might think that influential people in the Conservative Party (Lynton Crosby?) would be trying to work out whether there are any lessons to learn from the CDU.  If so, it’s being well hidden.  Many writing on this site regularly decry the CDU as part of the “declining European model”.  And for many of those who comment regularly on ConHome (the kind who use lots of capital letters and write about the “EUSSR”), Merkel is simply the enemy.  Kohl, Merkel, Delors, Chirac, Rajoy  – who cares what party they’re in,they’re all continental politicans trying to subjegate us.

Of course political culture and party dynamics are different in every country, and we should be wary of simplistic comparisons.  After all, no British politician would dare to propose the degree of decentralised market involvement we see in German healthcare.

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Merkel attracts criticism not only for her policies but for her style, being apparently slow to reach decisions and failing to make her direction clear.  But she’s often content to move slowly and deliberately, grinding down opposition.  Other than on the Euro crisis, policymaking often seems slower than in Britain, but with less constant tactical positioning of the kind our government can sometimes fall for.

The German economy is in solid shape, and living standards are rising.  Yes, some state elections have been lost (Lower Saxony on 20th January is difficult to call).  Merkel is hugely helped by the fact that Schroder’s SPD had already undertaken some difficult reforms in welfare policy, and, since she became Chancellor in 2005, Germany avoided the pre-crisis Gordon Brown splurge.

She’s made some major u-turns, most notably on nuclear power but also on the minimum wage.  She has disappointed market liberals who complain that she’s “social-democratised” her party.  Still, the state share of GDP is going down and there’s now room for modest tax cuts.

Somehow, despite the fact that many of her policies are unpopular with the electorate, Merkel and her party are rising in the polls.  Germans like the seriousness of her approach, her distain for easy or populist answers, and even her leadership on Europe.

It is extraordinary how much consensus there still is in Germany – both on economic policy and on Europe.  The SPD and Greens are slightly more favourable towards Eurobonds and a more generous approach to the Euro crisis, though a little cautious about campaigning on this.  The “eurosceptics” within the CDU are a leaderless smallish minority, and concerned largely about the potential cost to Germany of the European Stability Mechanism, rather than reversing political integration.  Its CSU sister party in Bavaria has sometimes sounded a different note on Europe, but it is about to elect a new moderate woman leader in Ilse Aigner who has no track record of questioning the Merkel course on Europe.  Merkel has also seen off protest parties of the extreme right – and not by pandering to them (no talk of “reuniting the right” here).

One big difference with the Tories is that although Merkel is a dominant leader, the CDU is a democratic, mass membership party.  Delegates vote periodically on the party basic programme – the difference between our anemic annual rallies and the lively floor debate at CDU conferences is striking.

Because it was founded as a “Volkspartei” – a people’s party - not an old style parliamentary party, there isn’t the “officer-other ranks” distinction that you get in the Victorian-founded Conservative Party.  Not only does Merkel need to get re-elected regularly by the party, but its presidium and board feature cabinet ministers and Land premiers along with leaders of important sectional interests, while MPs, MEPs and regional MPs vie to chair regional and district parties.  There’s no forelock-tugging “voluntary party” mindset.

Perhaps as a result, the CDU is much less hollowed out than the Conservative party.  Although CDU membership has declined over the long term, with 482,000 members and another 150,000 members in the Bavarian CSU, it compares pretty well against our 175,000.

Curiously this very different relationship with the membership doesn’t result in more populist or “right wing” policies, even though at least some of the members are unsettled by the way Germany is on the hook for the Euro crisis.  I would argue that partly because the CDU is more internally democratic, Merkel has more credibility with the membership to take it on when needed and argue her case to get a broad “licence to operate”.

Merkel is helped at times by the fact that Germany is a federal state.  It can slow down reform, but it means the federal government is not expected to do everything – and there is sometimes credibly someone else to blame.  The German cabinet is just 16 strong, and it has, for example, no cabinet minister micromanaging local government, since that’s a Land matter.  A federal state with a written constitution also guards against hasty, ill-considered government initiatives like elected police commissioners.

One of the biggest differences between the two parties is that the CDU is much less associated with the wealthy.  It calls itself a party of the middle, and explicitly recognises that it benefits from a variety of different roots: Christian, “social”, conservative and liberal.

The CDU continues to put an emphasis on social policy, with lively debate on current proposals to help poorer pensioners.  In addition to a broad centre, the CDU does have a left and a right wing, but unlike the Cameroon modernisers, the CDU’s social wing (including trade unionists) is mainly identified with bread and butter issues affecting the poor and working people.  The seriousness with which the CDU now wants to tackle financial regulation reflects this concern for the man and woman in the street. (Eurosceptics might pause to consider if “defending the City from Brussels” is really a popular refrain across the UK).  No wonder the CDU is able to pick up support from a broader pool of votes, and has no large no-go areas like Scotland. I haven’t the figures to hand, but I suspect that the proportion of the German electorate who say they would never consider voting CDU is much smaller than those who say they’d never consider voting Conservative.

When it comes to the relationship between the two parties, it’s a long drawn-out tale of unrequited love. The CDU has invested much, much more time and money over the years in its relationship with the Conservative Party than other way around, a function of state funding combined with a strong sense of responsibility for international cooperation steming from German history.  There’s no Conservative party equivalent of the Konrad Adenauer Institute, with offices in Berlin to seeking to inform and educate. It’s difficult to overestimate the degree of frustration in the CDU with the Conservative Party’s hardening Eurosceptic position.  Hard Eurosceptism is something that most CDU politicians find simply impossible to understand in rational terms.  There is still a strong desire to work with the UK and the Conservative Party, as natural allies for a more outward looking and free-trading Europe, but CDU expectations of Cameron and his government are now minimal.

It’s often said that having grown up in the East German DDR, Merkel has become a pro-European out of reason, while finance minister Schäuble is an instinctive pro-European in his heart.  Either way, we would do well to take Merkel’s commitment to Europe at face value.  When she said recently,“We Europeans now stand closer together than ever before, even if it’s not exactly easy every day”, she means it.  It might not be the way a British Conservative would say it, but in any club there’s a level of natural politeness to others – a courtesy or solidarity that is also in our self-interest.  Would have been so hard for Cameron to turn up in Oslo?  The symbolism of Merkel sitting between Hollande and Poland’s PM Tusk at the Nobel prizegiving was compelling.  (a Polish EU commission president remarkably is now much more conceivable than a British one).

So what advice might Merkel have for Cameron?

Avoid letting tactics get in the way of strategy.  Try to cut down on the gimmicks. Boring is good politics if you’re pursuing the right economic policies.

Start revitalising the party as a democratic organisation, decentralise party decision-making and take it seriously. But don’t pander to the membership on key policies if the national interest lies elsewhere – make the case to them, fight your corner and show leadership.

Recognise that long-term electoral success comes from a broad, national appeal, not simply from a narrow key seat strategy however appealing that may seem.

Pro-European parties can win elections.  If Merkel happens to suggest to you that the UK should play a leading role in Europe as treaty change comes forward, rather than tear itself apart in a referendum, consider her track record and listen to her (just checking everyone’s still reading..).
Recognise that in the EU you need to win friends as well as arguments.

Social policy can’t just be about cutting welfare.  It’s got to show empathy for and deliver for the low paid and struggling families.

But perhaps the biggest thing Merkel’s got going for her is something that Cameron sadly can’t match: Germany’s public deficit as a percentage of GDP is just 0.6%.  The UK’s, as we are hardly likely to forget, is 7.8%.


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