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 will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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