Lessons the Tories can learn for 2015 from Obama’s victory

Iain Martin 4.30 pm

The dust is finally settling on what feels like the longest US election race in history. The media’s ‘too close to call’ narrative was fashionable and ignored the real polling data; it merely served to mobilise Obama’s dormant voters in the key seats to deny the Republicans a return to the White House. Given the obvious parallels, here are five points the Tories can learn from Obama’s victory in the campaign for a majority government in 2015.

  1. The Conservatives need to engage with ethnic minority voters

Whilst Obama got fewer votes amongst White Americans than his opponent, he held massive leads with Hispanic, Asian and Black voters. For far too long, the Tory party has relied on the notion that its social and economic policies chime most closely with the cultural values of certain ethnic groups, and that the policies alone will attract minority voters. To win in 2015, the Conservatives will need to reach out to all parts of society, to mobilise on the ground, to engage and reach areas which have previously been deemed impenetrable. The message sold must be tailored to the recipient but crucially the message must be delivered by the appropriate messenger. It is plain to see that the Tories biggest problem is still its image, the perception of being out of touch and lacking empathy. There are many within the Conservative Party who can put paid to that. It is time to start deploying them.

  1. A slick, on-the-ground, campaigning and fundraising organisation is required

Obama’s campaign team were rightly convinced that their on-the-ground organisation would betray the national polling data and produce a comfortable win. The fundraising effort was well organised, highly local and sophisticated in the tailoring of the message. Fundraising efforts surpassed all expectations, largely through adopting an innovative approach. This piece in the Telegraph highlights some of the new techniques developed and utilised.

Innovation will be key, particularly exploitation of the broadcast media, which were seen as the most important influence on the outcome of the US election. 

  1. Yes – you guessed it - elections are won in the centre ground

The Republican Party dragged the usually moderate Mitt Romney towards the right and this was fatal to their chances of election. The American dream offered by the Republicans was rejected in favour of the comfort and collectivist instincts of the Democrats. At a time where poverty and unemployment is high, the plans to repeal ObamaCare appeared heartless and out of touch. The ‘we are all in this together’ message won the day. The Conservatives must not stray from the current position and lurch towards the right; on issues of childcare, on the ECHR, protecting the International Development budget, on the need to address the climate change, the Conservatives have the correct position. To move away from that would be to undermine all of the good work Cameron has started.

Obama won with policies to address both climate change and reduce the deficit. The Tories must do the same.  The imbalanced welfare system is quite rightly being addressed by this government, but the line between being sensibly on the side of working families, and appearing heartless and inhumane must be carefully tread.  

  1. Real people vote on real issues

Listening to US voters being interviewed on the various channels, it is clear that more than ever people voted with their pockets. Gone was the previous reliance on hollow rhetoric, this election was won by the man who had the clearest plan for recovery and who could offer individual Americans hope that he can make their lives better. In saving the automotive industry and arresting the increase in unemployment, the president showed he could improve people’s lives and understand their concerns.

The Coalition’s macroeconomic policies have gone some way to begin the path to recovery. The deficit reduction plan and low interest rates have formed the basis for a more stable economy and will, in time, restore some confidence in the government. In 2015, the Conservatives must have a plan for the new economy and communicate their vision as to what it means for the lives of those they hope to attract. That means having an active industrial policy, not simply insisting that the context for growth will attract growth on its own, it means a coherent energy policy, it means a plan for keeping fuel duty low, it means a comprehensive rebalancing of taxation and further increases in the lowest tax threshold. Each and every campaign message should pass the ‘what it means for you’ test.   

  1. Women are the key to the election in 2015

Obama won the women’s vote. The polls show that Cameron has some way to go to regain the votes of women who have deserted him in recent years. Policies such as the child benefit cut, together with some unnecessary presentational issues have had an impact on Cameron’s standing amongst women. David Cameron must reconnect and demonstrate that he understands women’s concerns over equal pay, over imbalanced maternity/paternity provision, childcare and early intervention in order to win back trust. 

Above all, Obama’s victory demonstrates that it is possible for David Cameron and the Conservatives to win in 2015. Voters have long memories and the anger/lack of forgiveness which prevented a Republican return will pose a similar problem for the Labour Party.

Strong growth and a positive message will seal the deal.

How to thaw the frosty relationship between the political class and the public

Iain Martin 11.07am

Like all other political anoraks, I spent my Easter Monday gluttonously indulging in chocolate and BBC Parliament’s re-run of the 1992 general election night.
As someone whose political memory began in 1997, it shocked me both how much and how little has changed in politics.
Recession, the break-up of the union, rising home repossessions and rising levels of unemployment are once again the key issues of the day. The challenges we face are not new challenges but challenges we have faced at many points in our history and the solutions we as a ‘politcial class’ propose are rather uninspiringly similar to those used in the past.
As a party which is so dominated by historians, it is hardly surprising that the best solutions we have are nods to the past, such as deregulation, the right to buy your council house and enterprise zones (which Nik covered last August); nor should this be taken as a bad thing.
It is a good thing that the polarised debates of the past around socialism and capitalism are no longer. Yes, we still have the political cycle and the natural oscillation between the ‘left’ and the ’right’ - change is fundamental and forever will be. It is both heartening and shameful that our politics has converged to a point where the cliff-edge for families to receive child benefit is one of the main talking points.
While avoiding the needless and misinformed romanticising of 1950s Britain as a close-knit society, intrinsically egalitarian and altruistic, it is striking how more than ever what matters most to people is the ability to consume, to have some luxuries, to afford a second holiday.
As a society we recognise the challenges we face, we all have friends, acquaintances or family members who have suffered from the recession; we can see how young people are struggling to find work, we want the government to act. This Government has acted by raising the personal tax allowance, by lowering corporation tax, through welfare reform.
The Government must do more to protect the most vulnerable and get the lowest paid back into work, yet it knows to go too much further would mean greater restraints on spending or increasing the burden on higher earners.
Society has been well briefed by politicians of all sides on the need for ‘austerity’, yet when austerity bites society is, in some quarters, rejecting it. This hypocrisy is regrettable, though understandable given the political climate we are living in.
Arguably the biggest challenge facing this Government is the disconnection between the people who run the country and the people who live in it. It is by no means a problem caused by this Government but one which it much address if it is to achieve its goals.
In 1992, Britain opted for John Major - a leader who they trusted, who understood them, who was a safe pair of hands at a time when Britain required someone to drag this country out of a recession.
Britain rejected the triumphalist, flashy, arrogant pseudo-socialist Neil Kinnock in favour of a firm hand on the tiller. The highest turnout ever seen in a general election demonstrated the nation’s trust in a man who represented Britain’s psyche at that time better than any of the alternatives.
We, as a party, won votes in all parts of the country and astonishingly acheived a better swing in Scotland than anywhere else in the country. The ‘one-nation’ tradition was preserved.
Eighteen years later we have a deeply divided nation with life expectancy, average earnings and unemployment so wildly heterogenous across our nation. This, sadly, is reflected in the political geography which now exists and the obvious north/south divide which has emerged in recent years. Much of this must be attributed to the cynical, unsustainable, politically motivated, short-sighted policies of the previous Labour government who ‘solved’ unemployment through public sector job creation in the north.
Political disengagement is often measured by the strength of the ‘other’ parties and in a recent poll UKIP acheived 11 per cent support, enough to put anyone off their dinner.
It would be easy to dismiss UKIP as a temporary sponge for the disaffected (and Prof Tim Bale did so persuasively for the Spectator yesterday).
But to dismiss UKIP entirely would be a grave folly. Since 1992, we have lived through internal bickering on matters European, cash for questions, cash for honors, cash for access, an expenses scandal, broken promises and unpopular ’liberal’ interventionism. Westminster has shrunk into a self-absorbed, self-obsessed and at times self-loathing bubble fuelled by the tribal and vindictive media. It is no surprise that the public as a whole are more sceptical of politicians than ever.
In the cities and towns of Britain there are millions whose lives are barely touched by the actions of politicians. They ask themselves: ultimately who can make a difference to my local area, to my local schools and communities? They just want clean, safe streets and opportunities for their children.
The Government’s solution to this is truly exciting. The Localism Act, wholesale reform to the schools system and, most notably, directly elected mayors in our towns and cities.
We now have an irreversible cult of celebrity which pervades urban Britain. Many friends in my hometown of Whitley Bay idolise the likes of Alan Shearer and Cheryl Cole but could not name their MP (Labour’s deputy chief whip Alan Campbell, for what it’s worth) or their local councillors.
Directly elected mayors are a way of bridging the gap between Westminster and the public. Naturally, Whitehall is disinclined to cede power. But this could be a genuinely transformative move towards a more one-nation form of government.
It must be allied to lasting political reform. The Government must seriously look at reform of the trade union movement and funding of political parties, of course, and it will no doubt do this.
What it must not ignore, however, is the selection and subsequent election of MPs. The death of political party membership can be taken as a surefire sign of dissatisfaction and disengagement with the political system. To dismiss the decline in party membership as an irrelevance would be to miss one of the fundamental problems in modern British politics: the lack of charisma, the lack of inspiration, the lack of energy from our political elite.
Time after time, we see our politicians on the television in suits looking as though they are funeral-bound, morosely defending or attacking the government of the day’s position like puppets.
Where are the characters? Those who can motivate through speech and action the voters to engage in debate? They have disapperared in part due to the media’s obsession with gaffes, thus influencing leaders into promoting bland but safe candidates, but in part due to the decline in local political activism and membership.
The typical local party selection meeting is attended by a very small number of members who rarely represent the demographic of their constituencies. It is staggering that in many cases someone who might represent 70,000 constituents can be selected by less than a hundred local party members. Or in the Labour party’s case, a den of union fixers.
Each party has a responsibility to broaden their outreach. The open primaries which were trialled by the Conservative party at the last election were an excellent start. They encouraged people as Dr Sarah Wollaston, who had not even considered a role in politics, to stand for election.
To introduce open primaries across the country would require both financial investment (opening the possibility of state funding) and political investment, it would certainly be a radical reform requiring an immense amount of political will. It is decisions like this that can define governments as genuinely radical, that can be quietly transformational. To simply trust that the ‘lost generation’ will naturally return to the fold would be to ignore a fundamental problem and to miss a rare opportunity to make a lasting difference.