Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
American elections always catch the eye of those of us interested in politics in a way that elections in no other country can. Partly it’s the sheer Hollywood-esque size of the spectacle. There are primaries upon primaries, debates after debates, rallies in front of thousands of screaming supporters and eye-watering millions of dollars spent on campaigns.
It’s not just the scale that makes you wonder – it’s the duration as well. People in Britain got bored and blamed the Fixed Term Parliament Act for making the 2015 election campaign drag on for a few months. In America, Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for the November 2016 election back in March 2015 and Hilary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders announced theirs less than a month later.
But, despite America’s politics being so very different to the UK, the real reason we’re interested is because we’re looking for lessons that we can apply at home. The variety of candidates and the multitude of strategies being put forward to an electorate over an exhausting period of time makes the US a political laboratory unlike any other, where every weakness of thought or argument is discussed again and again.
This temptation to draw comparisons, is why some on the Left are looking at the surprising level of success that Bernie Sanders has had at making dents in the Hilary Clinton machine, and feeling hopeful.
Here is a left-wing man, who has spent the last 30 years saying the same old things while everyone has largely ignored him, but who has suddenly been thrust into the limelight as the new socialist messiah while being praised for his authenticity and principles. It’s very easy to see why the comparison with Jeremy Corbyn is made by his supporters.
However this is not the right comparison to make. If you want the real lesson for Labour, it lies with the Republicans, and the Tea Party.
New Labour members seem to prize ideological purity above electoral success and talk about deselecting moderate Labour MPs, while telling anyone that has ever had the slightest positive thought about Tony Blair to ‘join the Tories’ (we’re more than happy for anyone to vote for us, by the way).
In America, the Tea Party came to be because very conservative Republican voters were fed up with ‘Washington’ and the compromises that were made there. They set about approving politicians if they were deemed conservative enough, and ran candidates against others in primaries if they were not. They succeeding in dragging the party to the right, made life difficult or impossible for moderates and were more comfortable with their candidates to represent them – but at what cost?
Despite angry campaigns against ‘Obamacare’ and seething rage about the direction the country was taking, Obama comfortably won re-election in 2012. The Tea Party are now reduced in power but have still influenced a Republican race with candidates fighting to prove they are the most right-wing. After Super Tuesday, it looks very unlikely that any more moderate candidate will even get close to fighting their way out of the primary field.
The Republicans have attained greater ideological purity and a distaste for compromise, but have they lost the ability to represent the views of the nation outside of party boundaries?
When you are trying to bring together the ideas of millions of people about how to run a country, there are always going to be a multitude of different opinions. The point of democratic politics is to try and put together a programme of policies that represents as many of these opinions as possible, while accepting not everyone will agree on everything.
Elevating immovability as an absolute virtue makes creating a party that properly represents this plurality of opinions very difficult. A small group will feel happy that their view has been perfectly represented, but that does nothing for everyone else.
You must always have overall guiding principles that provide the core framework of a party. But if you cannot accept a variety of views in your own party, then you have no hope of representing and respecting the much greater variety of views in the general public, who do not spend their days discussing political theory.
The Conservatives recognise this and respect it. This is why I believe we will be able to air different views on Europe for the next few months, and then unite again.
It looks as though Labour, like the Republicans, are moving into a phase where they seek to remove the ideologically impure from their party. This may help them feel good. But it means they can’t properly represent the British people.