The Republican Party's future: evolve or die

If the GOP is to avoid becoming completely irrelevant, it needs to embrace people who actually understand modern America.

While President Obama’s supporters bask in re-election glory, America’s conservatives have been left asking themselves how and why their man managed to lose this election and what they can do to ensure a Republican win in 2016.  

The truth is that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why Romney lost. His failure is obvious to anyone who exists outside of the conservative bubble. People voted not just against Romney, but against his party’s values and what the Republican Party has come to stand for, particularly on social issues like race, women's rights, gay marriage and immigration, in recent years. The question now is what the future of the party is.

When, after the 2008 election, the party took a sharp shift to the right and fully embraced the Tea Party as its "base", it embraced ideology over pragmatism, and decided that fanaticism based on nostalgia for a (older, white, male, deeply religious, exclusive) America of yesteryear was better than keeping up with the pace of progress. 

The Tea Party – and other radicals like those in the Birther movement who have spent a great deal of time on petty issues such as demanding President Obama’s birth certificate - was allowed to become synonymous with mainstream conservatism, even though it is really a fringe group made up of a small number of people. This led to the Republican brand falling into an even sadder state than it had been after eight years of George Bush's contentious presidency. 

Unable to accept the shifting social, cultural and demographic realities of modern America, the Republican Party clung to the idea that it could fight the direction in which the country is moving and thought little of alienating key voting blocs such as women and minorities - to its own detriment. 

These past two elections have seen a huge increase in non-white voters and increased support from women, youth and minorities that was enough to swing the vote in President Obama’s favour in 2012 as they did in 2008. Whether or not conservatives like it, these groups hold the key to the future and will only gain in power and number. In other words, they will not be ignored. 

In the post-election analysis, some have started to acknowledge this fact, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich admitting that he and others like Karl Rove were "wrong" about Romney's prospects. "We all thought we understood the historical pattern and the fact that with this level of unemployment, with this level of gasoline pricing what would happen...,” he said.  

On the Huffington Post, a Republican strategist also outlines the level of disconnect that the current party has with the country:

  • We thought young voters would not turn out at the same level as 2008. They did. In fact, they represented 19 per cent of the electorate per exit polls--as high, if not higher, than four years ago.
  • We said that Democrats would not be +6 over Republicans and if they were, Obama would win. Well, they did and he did. Again, exit polls say Democrats were +6. Romney needed the proportion of Republicans and Democrats to be even to win.
  • We thought minority turnout would be lower than 2008. It was not. In several important precincts in key states, minorities voted in numbers equal to - and in some cases better than - four years ago.
  • We thought Romney would win Independents by double digits. He won them, but by just five points.
  • We thought Romney would have a huge gender advantage among men; it was only seven points. Meanwhile, the President won women by 11 points.
  • We thought Romney would dominate on being "better able to handle the economy." He only beat the President on this issue by a few points. Not enough.

This level of flawed thinking is stunning.

If the Republican Party is to move away from being seen as fringe and disconnected, it needs new leadership that will embrace the mainstream, acknowledge the country's changes and face reality head on. It needs people who actually understand modern America - perhaps themselves young, brown, female. But this must go beyond mere tokenism. 

Republicans would do well to denounce the deeply unpopular Tea Party as its base and admonish the racist, misogynist, fanatics that it brings with it. It would benefit from separating itself from people like the sensationalist Donald Trump, Todd "legitimate rape" Akins (who lost his Tea Party seat in Missouri) and people of their ilk, moving away from the extreme right to a more palatable middle ground for those who may be fiscally conservative yet socially moderate or liberal. It should speak to people and ask them what they need and what they’d like to see from the party. 

Those who put millions of dollars into super PACs with very little, if any, return on investment should realize that more than money, the party needs a strong sense of purpose and vision that resonates with a wider range of Americans.

I’m no Republican, but even I have been shocked by the party's lack of understanding about the direction of the country and their arrogance in believing that somehow they can ignore, dismiss, denigrate and insult large swathes of the voting population and still win. The Republican Party of today risks becoming irrelevant in future years if it cannot get with the programme. 

It is time for a new "base", one that accurately reflects the direction in which America is moving. Whether or not such leadership can emerge from the Republican Party, however, remains to be seen.

It is Charles Darwin who said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” If the Republican Party is to survive, it must listen to Darwin's words. Its current choice is to evolve or die. 

Mitt Romney makes his concession speech. Photograph: Getty Images

Lola Adesioye is a British-born, New York-based political commentator, writer and broadcaster of Nigerian heritage. She tweets @lolaadesioye.

Photo: Getty
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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