Louise Mensch: the Conservatives can learn from the failures of the Republican Party

Writing from her new home in New York, Louise Mensch argues that Britain needs more politicians like Chris Christie and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s strange watching the parallels develop between British and American politics. After the disaster of the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign (think William Hague as Conservative leader), the Republicans were at least respectable under Mitt Romney (think Michael Howard). But they now have no hope of victory, with no light in sight down a long, dark tunnel and a clear need for major reform.

The Grand Old Party needs to learn the lessons of Nate Silver and actually read the polls. The numbers would show GOP believers that the ground has shifted decisively away from them and they must understand that. Hispanics are no longer voting for them. Women are not voting for them. Terrifyingly, young people are voting – but not for them. The last election brought a surge in the youth vote, which almost never happens. The GOP cannot win if it becomes the party of Todd Akin, of middle-aged white males. There are not enough of those to get anywhere near the White House.

“Ah,” cries the blogosphere, “but we nominated liberals in McCain and Romney and look what happened!” Yet the terminally dull Romney got the nod because no candidate worth anything wanted to chance his arm against the guy who got Bin Laden. Mc- Cain, despite his unique status as a war hero and political maverick, cannot speak well – and this is the television age.

The fundamental error is to assume that, in tacking to the right, America will elect the GOP again. It is becoming more British; it is becoming more centrist. The 42-year-old Texan senator Ted Cruz may get the firebrands going but immigration reform is hugely popular in America. The GOP should make a list of “popular things” – and ask itself why it is against them.

It should follow the model of the red governors who win blue states – because the US today is itself a blue state. And failing to recognise that shift will lead to obsoleteness. Arnold Schwarzenegger won in California because he was ready to detoxify the Republican brand: with magnetism, humour and fame, yes, but also with initiatives for afterschool programmes and green energy. He was a Tory people could vote for.

Hillary Clinton is definitely running for the presidency next time round and I am honestly not sure she is beatable. But the best chance the GOP has of defeating her is a candidate who will fight the general election, not the Republican primary. That candidate is Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey – a big man who is socially liberal, in favour of civil partnerships, who took on the teaching unions and won, who co-operated with Barack Obama and ripped the hell out of a Republican Congress on behalf of his state after Hurricane Sandy.

Like Schwarzenegger, he pitches himself as post-partisan: socially liberal enough that centrists can vote for him, blue collar enough to win in Ohio. Neither McCain nor Romney had that. He would probably win New Jersey, too, which changes the electoral map.

He will need a woman as his running mate. And I know exactly whom he should pick: Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico. A former Democrat who joined the GOP over economics, Martinez is pro-choice, progun (Christie is mostly pro-life, anti-gun), from a small blue swing state, a competent woman and a non-Cuban Hispanic.

Britain could do with more politicians like Martinez, and like Christie and Schwarzenegger: those who can go beyond the old party boundaries to appeal to a wider group. That is particularly vital, as in these days of George Osborne’s economic triumph it is hard to recall that there is also a story about plummeting Tory membership. Of course there is, but that is partly because David Cameron has reached out to a far, far larger constituency of Tory voters. In fighting to win my own marginal seat of Corby in 2010, I was supremely grateful to our activists and members but aimed to appeal to a greater swath of the public.

The Tory party needs to rethink membership, with its fees and off-putting structure. If I were working at Conservative central office, prices would be slashed to the bone and membership would be free for the armed forces. Activists and supporters would be targeted digitally. I would look to leverage the kind of data that tech companies use. And I’d campaign virally. Furthermore, I would allow national membership as well as by constituency. Many people are put off by a local party geared to quizzes and bridge; students and twentysomethings are debating on Twitter, reading Guido Fawkes and staying away from the formal, yahoo nature of Conservative Future (a perennial embarrassment).

Registering, involving and staking out a new generation of Conservatives cannot be done the old-fashioned stubs-and-dinners way. It is not that we should abandon our old supporters; we should thank and embrace them. But every Conservative PPC and MP must remember that it is not the 70 people in their Conservative club who elected them, but 75,000 voters in their seats.

We need to go for registered Conservatives and count them as our members. We need to reform selection and the tiny clique that controls the candidates’ list. We need a central, national party and a huge database of phone numbers and emails. But most of all we need to remember that we cannot appeal only to those who loathed equal marriage and want out of the EU (I myself want total reform à laNorway) – to win, we must appeal to ex- Labour, ex-Lib Dem, ex-Green voters.

We must fight in the centre. Because that is where the US is heading – and where Britain has already arrived. Cameron’s huskies bought Osborne’s chance for true fiscal conservatism. Even diehard right-wingers should recognise that.

This is an edited extract from the autumn 2013 edition of Bright Blue’s magazine, the Progressive Conscience
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie arriving for the Sopranos star James Gandolfini's funeral. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.