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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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