By Tim Montgomerie, Editor of ConservativeHome.com and a speechwriter to two former Tory leaders.
A number of US commentators – including Fred Barnes, David Brooks and Mike Gerson – have suggested that the Republicans should study the renaissance of Britain’s Tories as they plot their own way back to popularity. That’s good advice because – despite recent setbacks – the Conservatives are likely to be Britain’s next government. Although there’s much to learn the study needs to be careful and learn from the mistakes as well as the more evident successes. Jonathan Freedland wrote an article for the New York Times that – if absorbed – would have sent the GOP in a very unbalanced direction. Here are eight observations on what the GOP should learn from David Cameron’s Conservatives:
(1) Patiently build for the long-term
This is probably the most important lesson – and one made by The Spectator’s James Forsyth in another very useful look at this subject. It may be difficult to hear this but Americans are unlikely to turn against Barack Obama quickly. The Conservatives wasted our first four years in opposition –
believing that voters would soon reject Tony Blair and we consequently failed to begin
the work of serious policy renewal. There was too much tactics, too little strategy.
All over the world we see voters re-electing incumbents at the first time of asking. Think Tony Blair, George W Bush, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, Stephen Harper, John Howard. Republicans don’t need to complete their rethink quickly. Take time. Don’t rush to conclusions. Debate thoroughly. Undertake serious – academically respectable – policy making. And don’t throw your best long-term prospects (eg Bobby Jindal) into the line of fire too quickly, as we did with William Hague.
- Candidates: He has relentlessly promoted women candidates and candidates from minority backgrounds (and with some success).
- Conservation: A famous visit to a Norwegian glacier – complete with huskies – was the most memorable moment in David Cameron’s conversion of his party to the cause of combating climate change. Voters were encouraged to vote blue (the Tories’ colour) and ‘go green‘. Conservatives have been most successful electorally when they’ve focused on local, practical green measures rather than ‘change the world’ environmentalism.
- Compassion: In echoes of George W Bush’s 2000 campaign David Cameron has presented himself as
a gentler conservative, concerned about the many poorer communities
failed by Labour’s big state. The first visit of his leadership was to a project working with disadvantaged youths and his first announcement was a major commission into the causes of persistent poverty.
- Civil liberties: Once the party of authoritarianism the Conservatives have about-turned and become a vigorous opponent of Labour’s plans for a national ID card and for an extended period of detention without charge. A more respectful view of same-sex relationships has also bought David Cameron greater opportunity to make the case for traditional marriage.
All of these changes have helped the Conservative Party connect with the many wealthier British voters that had deserted it.
(3) …BUT not a different narrowness
Under Michael Howard – David Cameron’s predecessor as Tory leader – the party had become too narrow; talking only of crime, immigration, tax and Britain’s relationship with Europe. David Cameron has rightly added to the Conservative appeal by addressing quality of life issues (the ‘CCCC’ agenda referred to above). But – although necessary – it left the Conservative Party almost as unbalanced in the summer of 2007 as it was under Michael Howard in 2005. More core Tory Party members were unhappy with David Cameron in September 2007 than were happy. Only when the Tory leadership started simultaneously talking about the familiar and ‘the change’ messages was David Cameron able to unite the core vote and the new members of his coalition*.
Australian John Howard’s rule of thumb was to spend as much time keeping his base happy as wooing new voters. David Cameron neglected the first half of the task until a year ago.
(4) Neutralise the left-leaning media
In our earliest days of opposition, the Tories just seemed to get angry – attacking the left-liberal media and retreating under the comfort blanket of the Daily Mail and Telegraph (Fox News and Talk Radio would be the nearest US equivalents).
David Cameron realised that an election victory would be very difficult if the BBC and The Guardian (as the journal of the ideas class, it is Britain’s most important newspaper) remained hostile. He has courted both extensively – not just giving them constant exclusives but also addressing ‘their issues’ – ‘the CCCC quartet’. Labour reacted furiously when a recent Guardian leader entertained the mere possibility that its readers should consider voting Tory.
(5) Build institutions that support deep reform
The two think tanks that have had most influence on Project Cameron didn’t exist when the Conservatives were last in power: Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice. Policy Exchange (or PX as it is known) was founded by Nicholas Boles and Michael Gove. Boles now runs the Conservative Party’s preparation-for-government unit and Michael Gove MP is the party’s education minister-in-waiting with an ambitious programme for schools reform in his briefcase. At least as influential is the Centre for Social Justice** chaired by former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith. A commitment to social justice is the modern Conservative Party’s X-factor. The CSJ’s developing agenda for rebuilding families, reducing welfare and tackling drug dependency is a perfect fit with conservatism’s Burkean traditions. It fulfils three other purposes:
- Conservatives should not be resigned to the persistence of poverty in our rich and technologically-sophisticated age.
- Only a stronger society will produce a smaller state by producing a sustainable reduction in the demands on government.
- The old conservative tunes aren’t electorally sufficient when centre left parties are also attempting to play them.
PX, the CSJ and other leading think tanks, including Reform and the Centre for Policy Studies, have played a vital role in providing ideas for the Conservatives and warehousing talent – and in ensuring that institutions with more old-fashioned perspectives don’t have a monopoly on ideas formulation.
(6) Re-create the big tent party
One of the strengths of David Cameron’s leadership has been his willingness to involve the party’s ‘biggest beasts‘ in the development of party policy. From the traditional left of the party he gave policy advisory roles to Ken Clarke, Stephen Dorrell, John Gummer and Michael Heseltine. Similar roles have been given to figures of the right including Peter Lilley and John Redwood.
Although Mr Cameron has been much less good at consulting other members of the party on a routine basis the involvement of these individuals in big picture policy development (as well as the policy breadth) has aided a sense of party unity.
(7) ‘Lovebomb’ your enemies
‘Lovebombing‘ is the tactic that David Cameron has used to devastating effect against Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats. After years of unsuccessfully trying to scare people from voting LibDem (because, for example, of their strong pro-Europeanism, their social permissiveness or ‘soft’ approach to crime), the Tories decided that it was better to flatter them and appear to agree with them on key issues.
The love-bombing strategy was partly a result of Tory fears that negative campaigning against the LibDems risked reinforcing voters’ perceptions of the Conservatives as mean-spirited rather than affecting voters’ perceptions of the ‘nice’ LibDems. The Republicans should consider lovebombing some of their Democrat opponents and delegating the harder-edged attacks to third parties.
(8) Don’t disarm on key issues
It seemed a perfectly sensible strategy at the time but the Cameron Tories decided to ‘disarm economically’. One year ago, the Conservatives’ Treasury spokesman, George Osborne, announced that he would match Labour spending plans and he also eschewed significant tax cuts. The Cameron-Osborne team hoped to take the issue of the economy ‘off the table’ and fight the election on crime and social reform – issues where the Conservatives are viewed as having much better policies. The recession has forced the Conservative Party to junk that disarmament strategy.
As the Republicans rebuild – and with their very different kind of leadership structure, this will be easier – they should leave themselves with more flexibility to bring issues like tax and security back to the forefront of the national debate. The UK Conservatives didn’t give themselves that flexibility and it has made their task harder now that Labour’s economic policy has been proved a failure.
In conclusion: I’m not sure we can teach Americans anything much about the internet although ‘WebCameron‘ has been an important communication vehicle for the Tory leader to talk directly to party members, without the media editing his message. Key to our revival has, of course, been David Cameron himself. Although some traditionalist Tories find him almost too good at PR – they’d like a slightly rougher, more unspun presentation – he enjoys very positive ratings with floating voters, particularly the professional voters that had found the party too strident. You can review some of his media performances via this video collection. Aside from personal charisma, David Cameron has given the Conservative Party a modern outlook, strategic discipline and a renewed policy agenda. Although Gordon Brown is enjoying a second honeymoon during this economic crisis, the clever money is still on a Tory victory at the next General Election.
* Combining the new and traditional messages isn’t too tricky: A commitment to actively support healthy, traditional marriages and fair pension and inheritance arrangements for gay adults… A bigger budget for the armed forces and an end to the sale of arms to despotic regimes… Faster, longer imprisonment of repeat offenders and more care for the vulnerable children of prisoners… A willingness to confront the Islamic roots of global terrorism and and more opportunities for mainstream British Muslims to set up state-funded schools…
** In the interests of full disclosure, I helped found the CSJ.