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

Photo: Getty
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Birmingham Labour members were almost disenfranchised, until Corbyn intervened

Newer members were to be denied a say in selecting candidates.

For decades, Labour members in Birmingham have had to wait for a year after joining the party to vote to select local candidates – unlike the six-month national rule. New ward boundaries for Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe, will be contested for the first time next year during an all-out election – and a reduction from 120 to 101 members means every Labour candidate, including sitting councillors, must be selected.

However, Labour’s Birmingham Board decided that to vote in the upcoming selection meetings, members must have been in the party for a year prior to their call for candidate applications in 2016. As a result, if you wanted to have a say, the cut-off date for being a party member was July 2015: two years ago.

It took the intervention of Jeremy Corbyn turning up at an obscure local meeting in order to vote for this two-year cut-off date to be replaced by a six-month minimum period. This has enfranchised the vast majority of Labour members, many of whom were increasingly annoyed with the original decisions taken by the Birmingham Board.

One of those who would have been disenfranchised if the board had had its way is Birmingham councillor Liz Clements, who re-joined the party as soon as Corbyn was first elected leader in 2015. Twenty years ago, she was an Oxfordshire County Councillor, and, in 1999, a European parliamentary candidate. While studying at at Oxford, in the same year as Yvette Cooper, she chaired the university Labour Club for a term in 1989. This year she was selected to contest the marginal Hall Green ward in a by-election, and, had the original rules been in place, she would have been unable to vote for herself (or anyone else) to be selected for council elections next year.

She says: “For me it was simply a matter of fairness and democracy. I couldn’t understand why the national rule wasn’t being applied. I found it very odd that I could seek selection as a councillor and get elected before I’d be eligible to vote in a selection meeting myself.”

She feels the two-year cut-off would have sent a message to new joiners and re-joiners alike that they were “second-class members”.

"During the general election we succeeded in firing up our membership with enthusiasm for the Labour manifesto and for our Labour candidates – people came out to campaign in large numbers. The proposed freeze date was divisive and would have discouraged newer members from campaigning in next year’s council elections.”

Before the Birmingham Board met, a large number of branch and constituency-level Labour groups passed motions calling for the freeze date to be scrapped. Councillor Clements was not at the Board’s meeting, so can’t comment on why they chose to ignore the members. From speaking with other party members, it's clear there was a widespread belief that this was done deliberately so unpopular councillors could cling to power.

With every ward holding selection meetings, there is am opportunity to clear out the dead weight and for fresh talent to revitalise the council, which is currently struggling to keep up with the austerity cuts imposed by central government. Some sitting councillors are retiring or facing scrutiny of their records, and may not even be shortlisted for selection. The Birmingham Board, after all, can veto any candidate before selection, including current councillors with poor attendance and casework records.

It therefore isn’t surprising that Councillor Clements doesn’t believe these rule changes will actually result in different candidates being selected. For her, it was about Labour values. “Corbyn listened to members and asserted the importance of democracy, fairness and inclusion”.

One reason it is arguable the selected candidates would remain the same is that Birmingham is struggling to attract enough people to stand for selection in the first place. There is, particularly, a shortage of women putting themselves forward. Liam Byrne MP is understood to have suggested relaxing the Labour Party rule demanding that at least one woman in selected in multi-member seats. It would be an extremely unpopular decision with many members, but there aren’t currently enough women candidates for the 32 two-member wards.

Councillor Clements says we should stick to the party’s rules as they are, but we need more women and BAME candidates. There are other options being suggested; re-opening nominations if no women have declared an interest in time, allow some wards to select two men if a neighbouring single-member ward selects a woman, relax the rule entirely, demand local parties re-advertise the space and find women candidates, or something else entirely.

Selections are underway, but most will take place in September, as many wards now need to find larger venues to hold the meetings. This will give candidates eight months to campaign before the Birmingham City Council elections next May.

Its current (and likely future) leader, John Clancy will almost certainly remain in post. Results from the general election showed many areas, previously thought to be unwinnable or marginal for Labour, have become either safe or eminently winnable. If Labour can keep itself above 40 per cent in the polls, we may well see a huge influx of new councillors representing people across Birmingham. The difference now Corbyn has stepped in, is that there is a real chance most candidates and councillors will be united by a belief in Corbyn, and his manifesto.

David Barker is a writer and journalist based in Birmingham, and press officer for Bournville Labour Party