Just ten months to go to the next election and Ed Miliband is still on course to become Prime Minister. As our esteemed editor noted yesterday, the voters would rather have David Cameron as PM, it’s just that they don’t want the rest of the Conservative Party.
There’s always hope, of course – and we may yet squeeze in next time with the largest number of seats. But the brutal truth is that we’re nowhere near where we need to be to win a majority. A growing number of Conservatives from right to left realise that the ‘modernisation’ project has failed – and that a much deeper kind of reform is needed if we’re to push our support to majority-winning levels.
In America, a similar realisation has dawned upon the ‘reform conservatives’ of the Republican Party. In a must-read article for the New Republic, Ed Kilgore offers some friendly advice – and, though a Democrat, he’s worth listening to:
“Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was policy director at an organization called the Democratic Leadership Council. If you know your political history, then you know that the DLC—and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute—spearheaded an effort to reposition the Democratic Party, much as you say you wish to reposition the Republican Party now.”
The so-called ‘New Democrats’ succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, transforming the party of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis into the party of Bill Clinton.
How did they pull it off? Kilgore’s first piece of advice is to “make enemies and pick fights”:
“Here’s a good rule of thumb. If established powers within your party don’t feel sufficiently threatened to strike back at you, then you’re not relevant enough to force a change.”
There’s a lot of truth in this. One only needs to look at the hardline eurosceptics within the Conservative Party: by cutting up rough, they forced Cameron to concede an in/out referendum. Reform Tories, on the other hand, are a polite and accommodating bunch – and they won’t achieve their objectives unless they too go into battle.
The next piece of advice is to get behind the right leader:
“Only presidents really succeed in reforming parties. If you don’t play a visible part in electing and advising a president, you probably aren’t going to be a visible partner in reforming the Republican Party. Get used to it.”
This is a lesson that the Tory right has consistently failed to learn over the 24 years. If your faction fails to produce candidates capable of winning leadership elections and national elections, then you won’t control your party. Reformist Tories need to be ready with a credible leadership candidate as soon as a vacancy arises.
Kilgore’s third piece of advice is don’t dodge the difficult issues:
“…in terms of political relevance, party ‘reform’ movements derive most of their influence and media presence when they squarely confront their party’s most difficult issues and offer fresh approaches.
“…it’s no accident that Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 message emphasized items like welfare reform, national service and reinventing government that addressed areas of long-standing Democratic weakness.”
In Britain, Conservatives have made a great deal of progress in addressing issues that were once abandoned to the left – such as poverty. What we’re less good at, though, is facing up to the things that voters don’t like about us – especially our greatest structural weakness, which is class. At a time when the likeliest leadership change involves one Old Etonian succeeding another Old Etonian, somebody should stand up for a Conservative Party that is not only for the people, but of the people too.
Kilgore’s final piece of advice is “to be wary of alliances with unprincipled elites” – which for reform Conservatives should go without saying. It’s no good being tough on some vested interests, while cosying up to others.
There’s one piece of advice that Kilgore doesn’t give – perhaps because it’s so basic. But here it is anyway: get organised. Though many Conservatives understand just how much we need to change in order to become a majority party again, there’s no coherence, just various individuals and little groups doing their own thing.
All very conservative, of course, and fine as far as it goes – which is to say, not very far at all.