The Tories can learn from Teddy Roosevelt's "popular conservatism"

By confronting corporate monopolies and vested interests, the Tories can win over ordinary voters.

It's election season in the States. British politicians, often keen students of US politics, are likely to be looking west for inspiration. If it isn’t US politicians, such as Bill Clinton, that are inspiring British politicians, it’s American academics, such as Michael Sandel.

The Tories remain keen to look for inspiration across the pond, but they may not find much in their once "sister party". The Republicans have, in the words of the Prime Minister, "drifted apart" from the Conservatives in recent years. With the influence of the Tea Party increasingly obvious and a right-wing platform, which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion in all circumstances, the modern-day GOP may not be the place for UK Conservatives keen to moderate their image and broaden their appeal to look.

Instead of looking to modern-day Republicans in search of political clues, the Tories would do better to consider the inspiration of a remarkable GOP President from over a century ago.

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, the all-action trust buster and war hero was every inch both a progressive and a conservative, appealing to all sections of society, emphasising what would now be called social mobility and staunchly defending private enterprise, while opposing corporate monopolies and vested interests. Roosevelt successfully broadened the base of the Republican Party (before taking many of these new voters with him to Bull Moose in 1912 when his Progressive Party pushed the Republicans into third place), being seen to stand for the interests of the working man and woman, rather than governing in the interests of the rich and powerful. Much of his time in office was spent working to improve conditions for ordinary Americans, with measures such as the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Tories have much to learn from this. Some 64 per cent of voters still think they are the party of the rich and powerful, rather than ordinary people. Blue collar workers remain highly reluctant to vote Conservative.

Learning from Roosevelt's "square deal" and conservatism for the "little guy" might help modern-day conservatives – emphasising the importance of showing that everything the government does is to help people who are struggling to keep their heads above water. At the moment, that means that Tories need to do something to help blue collar voters struggling with declining living standards and a rising cost of living. Measures to keep down energy prices by abandoning expensive energy targets and ensure an adequate supply of new housing would  help to make clear that the Tories understand that people are struggling.

Roosevelt was a great advocate of equality of opportunity and the idea came to dominate his speeches and his actions. In his 1910 "new nationalism" speech, he said:

At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalise opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth... Practical equality of opportunity... will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capabilities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable.

Social mobility can be the second element of a popular conservatism that Tories learn from Teddy Roosevelt.  Indeed, a popular Toryism should have equality of opportunity at its very heart. Adapting Roosevelt’s message that education and welfare reform should be designed to ensure that every man can make the most of his potential, regardless of accident of birth, could be a powerful way of selling a Tory message of "opportunity" to younger voters and some of those who backed away from voting Tory in 2010.

The third element of Roosevelt’s offer is probably the most controversial amongst Conservatives, but it is also probably the most powerful.  That is his opposition to vested interests in the public and private sector and his stand against the creation of monopolies. In his famous "New Nationalism" speech, Roosevelt argued that:

Every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good.  But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.

His argument was simple - capitalism is a good thing, it creates wealth, spreads opportunity and benefits all citizens, but capitalism cannot achieve its true potential if it is dominated by monopolies, who can distort markets and limit choice. He argued, rightly, that it was competitive pressures and consumer choice that drive the most innovation from capitalism and most benefit the citizen and the consumer. This belief was a core part of his "trust busting" of vested interests, who he saw as trying to guard against competitive pressures. Capitalism, as Roosevelt saw it, should benefit the mass of the population, rather than a few vested interests. This led him to break up the monopolies on the railroads and stand against the likes of the Standard Oil Company, as well as introducing legislation to protect the consumer against monopoly power.

Such an idea could have a profound impact on British politics in today’s economic climate. Political parties should be concerned that the public are concerned about the incomes of a few vested interests at the top growing, often through rewards for failure, as real incomes are squeezed. In both the public and private sectors, limited competition has meant that citizens rarely receive maximum benefit.

Our recent report on the procurement of tagging technologies showed that government procurement has resulted in monopolies being created that don’t have competitive pressures to innovate or deliver taxpayer value for money. A lack of competition on some train lines means that passengers are often faced with extortionate fees for indifferent service. And the effect of lack of competition in the banking system has been clear for all to see.

Conservatives could derive real benefits if they followed Roosevelt’s lead and argued for the benefits of local competition against vested interests and big business. They would be seen as standing up for the interests of the citizen and small businessman against the powerful big business lobby – standing up for the interests of the many would be a powerful addition to the Tory canon.

Teddy Roosevelt’s conservatism was based on the belief that the interests of the "little man" should always be protected and that public or private sector interests shouldn’t be able to grow too dominant or too powerful. It was a creed based on removing barriers to opportunity, both in education and the economy.  As British Conservatives look to redefine themselves as the party of the many, not the few, they would be wise to consider the ideas of one of the United States’ finest presidents.

David Skelton is deputy director of Policy Exchange. You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton

Theodore Roosevelt, US president from 1901-09, "every inch both a progressive and a conservative". Photograph: Getty Images.

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses