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

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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