Looking Across the Pond: What Republicans Can Learn from British Political Parties

Ethan Rauf, Political Science '14 January 3, 2013 Domestic 0
As Americans listened to Ohio filling in the victory column for Barack Obama on Tuesday November 6th, many conservatives in the United States knew that their time was up; America elected the President for a second-term. Disappointment and frustration pervaded the Romney camp – American conservatism hit a crisis.

When President Obama was elected in 2008, many pundits thought that the Republican Party hit rock bottom, that the Republicans would find it difficult to win elections in the two to four years ahead. The Republicans saw success again during the midterm elections of 2010, winning a majority in the House of Representatives. However, in 2012, the President won a convincing victory and Romney lost the election for several major reasons including shifting demographics and changing values.

Following Romney’s concession speech his supporters have begun to doubt the current image of the Republican Party. Pundits and the Republican strategists are now challenging more than ever the mainstream conservative position on social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion. Following victories for the LGBT community and pro-choice advocates in states such as Maryland, Maine, and Florida, America has seen a shift toward progressive stances on social issues. Whether or not this is just a short-lived post-election political maneuver to swing further toward the middle for the losing party, it is certainly not exactly a conservative’s dream.

Now that the election is over, the Republicans do have a number of problems in their house. America’s demographics are drastically changing. Approximately 70% of Latinos and 92% of African Americans voted for Mr. Obama.Congress elected its first openly gay politician, and a number of prominent women have entered Washington, including the new Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren.

But American conservatives need not fret. Their ideological cousin from across the pond can present a new model for the Republican Party here. They must look to the British Conservative Party, led by the current Prime Minister David Cameron.

In every democracy, the positions of political parties adapt to ever changing public opinions, a process especially evident during the ideological shifts in Britain in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Labour Party previously aligned with the international socialist movement during the 1960s; laying the foundation for a massive welfare state, nationalised industries, socialised universal health coverage, price and income policies, and heavy regulation. Margaret Thatcher changed it all, leading the Conservative Party throughout the 1980s and reflecting opposing public positions. In 1997, the young Tony Blair led the “New Labour Party” to a resounding landslide victory, but with their changed the face of  “Old Labour” by implementing privatisation, serious cuts in the budget, and scepticism of heavy taxation. The socialist dream was over.

But why did Blair do this? It is true that he did not align with the old socialist model of the Labour Party, but there was another historical element to this shift. The Labour Party was pulverised in elections throughout the 1980s as Thatcher took support from both the wealthy and most hitherto working class Labour voters. Labour realised that their policies were stale, that they had outlived the needs and desires of the British public.

At the end of 18 years of continuous Conservative government, Thatcher’s policies grew unpopular, and the public became exhausted by the major gap between the wealthy and working class, high unemployment and decimated industrial infrastructure. The Conservative Party lost its base in 1997 when Labour won an overwhelming landslide. The Conservatives did not win a general election again until a coalition government was formed in 2010 with the Liberal Democrat Party.

So what does this all mean for the Republican Party of the United States? Throughout the past thirty years, both of Britain’s major political parties have been forced to change to meet the turbulent needs and desires of the British electorate. This change was necessary for the of both parties as political force. So too must the Republican party in the U.S. change to adapt to the changing attitudes of the American people on issues of social policy and the public’s dissatisfaction with increased economic disparities.

There are two policy areas that Republicans need to moderate in order to come back strong in 2014 and 2016. First, they must be less extreme on social issues. States are gradually moving toward more liberal positions on gay marriage as gay people are now able to legally marry in nine states and Washington D.C. The British Conservatives do not oppose the issue of gay marriage. In 2010, Mr. Cameron publicly recognised that gays should be able to marry in the UK and since then, Conservatives have been as accepting on this issue as Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Although Parliament has not officially legalised gay marriage yet, David Cameron has promised that his government will seek to put that right by 2015.

However, if the Republicans seek to be more moderate on gay marriage it will not be easy. A large portion of their base is still socially conservative and they pose an enormous religious roadblock on the issue. If the Republicans are to alter their views on gay marriage and on abortion, we could witness the religious right removing their support for the Republican Party in search of a fringe political movement that solely represented their narrow views. It is a cost-benefit situation, as the Republicans would make it easier for a fiscally conservative/socially liberal person to support their party. Due to these societal changes, Republicans have to understand that this type of voter is increasingly becoming the most important in the electorate.

To further assist in their electoral recovery, not only should the Republicans ease their views on social issues, they should also review their policy on health care. Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 did not create a public option here, but it did create the foundation for universal healthcare. The concept of a public option (state mandated health care that competes with private insurance) is now becoming a potential solution and the future may show increasing support for a plan that would provide care for all Americans.

Even if the Republicans do not meet the Democrats somewhere in the middle on universal health care, they should be constructive in their positions and reject scare tactics.The constant use of inflammatory language with phrases like “socialist” or “government takeover” and their attacks on the health care systems in Canada, Britain, and France are not only factually incorrect but also counterproductive to bringing Americans together on the important issue of health care. Even Thatcher, the staunchly conservative British Prime Minister, supported the health care system in the UK, not because she supported the system, but because she knew that her government would be otherwise unelectable to a public seeking fundamental human services.

These suggestions reflect a pragmatic approach to electoral success. The Republican Party will learn from the shifting positions taken by both major political parties in the UK since the end of World War II. Although Labour and Conservative ideologically changed, these fundamental changes reflected the public opinion and therefore won them elections. If they want to be electable, the Republicans must look at the Conservative and Labour Parties in the United Kingdom, and come to terms with a shifting electorate.

We are fortunate to live in a democratic state and our views can, and should, change constantly. The Republicans must accept that America is changing and that traditional views on important issues are changing too. If Republicans want to do well in the next round of elections, they should look at Britain as a workable model.

Ethan Rauf
Political Science, 2014

Lyons, James. “David Cameron backs gay marriage in churches – Mirror Online.”Mirror Online: Number one for news, opinion, sport & celebrity gossip. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2012. <http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/david-cameron-backs-gay-marriage-1478684>.

“USA TODAY.” USA TODAY: Latest World and US News – USATODAY.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2012. <http://www.usatoday.com/interactives/news/politics/how-the-race-was-won>.

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