When staring down the barrel of a gun, most political parties seek drastic change to reverse their electoral fortunes. Such is the case with both the Republicans in the United States and the Conservative Party here.
The former has sought to alter its image following a presidential election it should have won. The Tories are still reeling from not winning an outright majority in 2010; still disgusted they share power with the Lib Dems; still concerned that a resurgent Labour Party and UKIP will render them useless in 2015.
These right-leaning parties have taken different routes in order to become winners. One has become more reactionary, peddling its old messages in a drastic attempt to excite the base; the other is accepting that the political parameters are shifting and that it needs to modernise its message.
Yes, that’s right; the Republicans are becoming more liberal than the Conservatives. The Tea Party had its day in the US in 2010; now it’s having its day in the UK in 2013. Two major issues – gay marriage and immigration – clearly show this shift in conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic.
Gay marriage, an issue many in Britain thought had been resolved, once again came to the forefront due to rebellious Tory MPs. One doesn’t need to go far to witness the dread in Conservative eyes at the issue and what it could mean. Gerald Howarth yesterday declared, "There are plenty in the aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping stone to something even further." One can dismiss this as the ramblings of a backbencher, but members of the cabinet have their own gripes: Welsh Secretary David Jones said that gay couples "clearly" could not provide a "warm and safe environment" in which to raise children.
The GOP may not seem as if it is leading the charge in terms of marriage equality, with the Republican National Committee voting to reaffirm the party’s commitment to upholding the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Yet there are growing calls for it to embrace gay marriage to attract younger voters. While in Britain Tory activists complain about Cameron’s stance and protest against the reform, grassroots Republicans in the United States are doing the exact opposite: they’re mobilising to embrace gay marriage.
When Rhode Island State Senate passed a same-sex marriage bill in April, all five Republicans in the chamber voted in favour. They had been extensively lobbied by the American Unity Fund, a Republican advocacy group that pushes its elected officials to embrace the gay equality agenda. Contrast what fund organiser Paul E. Singer told The New York Times with the words of David Jones above: "The concept of gay unions fits very well within our framework of individual liberty and our belief that strong families make for a stronger society."
Embracing change is something Conservative Party members appear unwilling to do. A letter signed by 30 present and former local party chairmen ignored the fact that more than 60 per cent of the British public have consistently supported same-sex marriage. It read: "The Prime Minister's bizarre drive to ram this legislation through Parliament, without any democratic mandate and without the support of party members has been a disaster and has driven thousands of voters to Ukip." Do they believe that if put to the vote, the UK would side with their stance?
This focus on the electoral advantages of supporting gay marriage brings us to the immigration debate, something that, alongside withdrawal from the EU, has been a staple of the UKIP manifesto.
One difference between Tory activist attitudes towards immigration and gay marriage is that a tougher stance on the former is supported by large sections of the public, whereas their stance on the latter is a vote loser. While in the US, the GOP is embracing immigration reform to allow illegal migrants to become citizens, in Britain, our public discourse has taken a negative turn. Whereas Tory activists are the Tea Partiers when it comes to gay marriage, the British public is increasingly becoming the Tea Party when it comes to immigration.
A NatCen Social Research back in September showed that British attitudes towards immigration had hardened over the years, with 51% wanting to see immigration levels "reduced a lot", a rise of 12% since 1995. Britons focus particularly on illegal immigrants. Recent Pew Research in the US shows almost 75% of Americans believe that there should be ways for illegal immigrants to stay within the country legally. The United States, a country born through immigration and proud of it, clearly has a different perspective on the matter – but now the GOP, a party whose immigration line was previously similar to that of the Conservatives, is embracing immigrants as potential voters.
In his New Yorker article "The Party Next Time", Ryan Lizza detailed the growing non-white American electorate and how traditionally red states, like Texas, were, in demographic terms, becoming more like blue states: growing numbers of Hispanic, African-American and minority voters who tend to lean Democratic. While some conservatives on Fox News bemoaned the decline of white America, others realised the need to approach these growing minority bases.
This is particularly important in Texas, a huge state whose large number of electoral colleges is needed by every Republican presidential candidate. Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the party in Texas, told Lizza: "You cannot have a situation with the Hispanic community that we’ve had for forty years with the African-American community, where it’s a bloc of votes that you almost write off." As Republicans begin to transform their approach towards Hispanics and other minorities, Conservatives in Britain are beginning once more to bemoan immigrants, pander to UKIP over the EU, and vocally oppose gay marriage. Worrying, large sections of the public also agree with some of these stances.
The British press always loves to focus on the ridiculousness of America: its gun culture, its capital punishment, its racism. Yet as we have laughed and ridiculed those across the pond, we have become blind to the fact that as the GOP has started to move away from its own loony past, the Tories are becoming the new heirs of Sarah Palin and her dropouts.