Britain's Tory Party is popular with nearly all American conservatives at the moment. Modernizing Republicans like the ways in which David Cameron changed the UK Tories, dragging them away from 'old-fashioned' views on candidate selection, the environment and lifestyle diversity. More traditional Republicans are more impressed with David Cameron now that he's in 10 Downing Street. They like his government's welfare reform program, his emphasis on school choice and, most of all, they admire his plan to eradicate Gordon Brown's deficit. In the next couple of days we'll look at lessons from Cameron's early months in government. Today we'll look at ten lessons from Cameron's road to office.
Build a broader appeal, not a radically different party. Before Cameron, Conservatives could talk comfortably about Europe, crime, tax and immigration but not about much else. After five years of Cameron's leadership the Conservatives are also talking about healthcare, education, conservation and civil liberties. They got into trouble when the new breadth wasn't twinned with the old familiars - when they only talked about the new thinking and neglected the old. Only when all themes were blended together (the message of ConservativeHome's shields) was there authenticity and balance. String, woodwind, brass and percussion together. The shop was selling the staple fare but new products were put in the store window.
Don't take any issues off the table. Early in the Cameron leadership (from late 2005 until 2008) there was a policy of deliberate 'economic disarmament'. Cameron decided that the election would be fought on social issues and he attempted to neutralize the economic issue by agreeing with most of the Labour government's big judgments on tax and spending. When the economic crisis hit the British Tories were left looking somewhat naked. Cameron and George Osborne were nimble enough to quickly carve out a distinctive and hawkish deficit policy (but are still struggling to find a growth strategy). There is no danger of the Republicans neglecting economic policy but they should keep working inventively on all major policy fronts - particularly the security front, lest the terror situation deteriorates.
Detoxification of the brand. For many Britons the Conservative Party was ugly before Cameron in its attitudes to the poor and to minority lifestyles. Some called it the 'nasty party'. Much of that reputation was unfair but Cameron decided to address the problem head on and 'detoxify' the Tory brand. A more respectful view of same-sex relationships, for example, has also bought David Cameron greater opportunity to make the case for traditional marriage. His change agenda can be summarised with four 'C's:
- Candidates: He relentlessly promoted women, candidates from minority backgrounds and gay Conservatives. The Conservative party began not just to look more like Britain but to offer ideas and policies that spoke directly to more of Britain.
- Conservation: A famous visit to a Norwegian glacier - complete with huskies (photo above) - was the most memorable moment in David Cameron's attempt to convert his party to the cause of combating climate change. Voters were encouraged to vote blue (the Tories' colour) and 'go green'. There is little evidence, however, that the emphasis on global warming was a big success. Voters were - and are - much more interested in energy bills. 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. Slowly but surely voters who had done well under previous Tory governments - but who felt too many had been left behind - returned to the party.
- Civil liberties: Once uncompromising domestic security hawks, the Conservatives have about-turned and became vigorous opponents of Labour's plans for a national ID card and for an extended period of detention without charge.
Build new think tanks that ensure modernization is conservative. Two think tanks, more than any others, built Cameronism. Neither existed at the start of the decade. The Centre for Social Justice* (CSJ) crafted Cameron's compassionate agenda and Policy Exchange (PX) helped his development of policy on education. They were needed because the existing think tanks appeared unenthusiastic about broadening their own policy development. Both the CSJ and PX had strong links to the Conservative Party and incubated talented individuals, much like US think tanks, who have since joined Cameron's government at senior levels.
Tax cuts are still a potent weapon. Cameron may be best known in the USA for the changes he made to the Conservative Party but when his fortunes were at their weakest - in the fall of 2007 and earlier this year when his poll ratings were flagging - he introduced tax cuts and both restored his position. The gentler, greener conservatism may have softened the opposition of the BBC, Guardian and other left-leaning media but tax moved voters.
Lovebomb enemies. After years of unsuccessfully trying to scare people from voting for Britain's third party - the Liberal Democrats - by, for example, attacking their strong pro-Europeanism, their social permissiveness and their 'soft' approach to crime - the Tories decided that it was better to flatter them and appear to agree with them on issues where there was common ground. This included civil liberties, decentralization, conservatism of the local environment and school funding. The love-bombing strategy was partly a result of Tory fears that negative campaigning against the LibDems had, over the years, only reinforced voters' perceptions of the Conservatives as mean-spirited rather than affecting voters' perceptions of the 'nice' LibDems. The Republicans should consider delegating the harder-edged attacks to third parties ('SwiftBoating' is, I think, the verb!).
Build a big tent. 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 were given to figures of the right including Peter Lilley and John Redwood. When the GOP chooses a 2012 candidate a sense of bringing the whole party together could be decisive.
Ruthless targeting. Resources were poured into only the most winnable battleground seats. The Conservative leader had complete control of the party operation. He didn't have to worry about the performance of whoever might be in charge of the UK's equivalent of the RNC. Much to the annoyance of individual candidates Conservative HQ centralized all campaign literature and messaging. This centralization meant individual candidates lacked as much freedom as would have been ideal but it prevented big embarrassments that might have distracted from the national message.
Learn the lessons of Cameron's mistakes. David Cameron only increased the Tory share of the vote from a historically low 33% to 37%. Given the scale of the outgoing Labour government's performance that was a modest advance. The problems of the campaign are analysed here but there was a lack of campaign co-ordination, poor use of polling and a failure to turn campaign pledges into retail form. David Cameron also agreed to a format for election debates that probably cost him 2% or 3% of the national vote. What Cameron's changes to the party did succeed in doing, however, was make the Coalition with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats possible. The more centrist Conservative Party under Cameron became acceptable as partners. This possibility of bipartisanship might be relevant to the GOP despite the big differences between the electoral systems of Britain and America.
* The CSJ deliberately adopted the language of the Left ("social justice") and infused it with conservative thinking on poverty, emphasizing the family, traditional education and work.