What American Conservatives Can Learn from the Brits

American conservatives can learn from Britain's conservative party on how to prove they are the party that can take care of society's less fortunate.

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a media conference after an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a media conference after an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

There is a conservative party of an English-speaking nation with a serious image problem. Twenty-eight percent of the public believes this party "doesn't care enough about the very poor or vulnerable". Forty-seven percent believe they are the "party of the rich". Finally, 28 percent don't believe the party cares enough about the country's healthcare system.

These are not poll numbers about the Republican Party of America, but about the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom. The above poll numbers are from a survey conducted by the website, ConservativeHome.com. Solving this problem has been the focus of many leading British Conservatives, most notably current Prime Minister David Cameron.

The disappointing results of the 2012 election have forced Republicans to rethink how they can win elections in the future, and British conservatives offer a glimpse of what success might look like. Republicans face many of the same problems as their English counterparts: According to the exit polls Mitt Romney lost 81 percent of respondents who wanted their presidential candidate to care about "people like me". Many Republicans have also criticized Romney's infamous comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income tax during the election, as well as his post-election comments that Obama won because his campaign provided "gifts" to his supporters.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

What can British Conservatives offer? In his post-election analysis, Winston Group President David Winston cited some of the work British conservatives had done and encouraged Republicans to emulate it:

What Republican campaigns need to develop is the ability to win issues and prove their candidates are ready to govern. David Cameron in his effort to modernize the Conservative Party redefined its purpose as not to win elections but to prove the party is ready to govern. The implication is that once you have proven you are ready to govern, you will win elections.  

This just scrapes the surface of how radically British conservatives have been working to change the perception of their party. Conservatives in the United Kingdom are notable for their willingness to claim the mantel as the party with answers to questions of poverty, inequality, and economic mobility. These are issues that don't always preoccupy the minds of Republicans and economic conservatives.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Consider a speech to a Conservative Party conference that David Cameron gave in 2009. It showed a very different conservative attitude on issues of poverty and income inequality:

Labour still have the arrogance to think that they are the ones who will fight poverty and deprivation. On Monday, when we announced our plan to Get Britain Working you know what Labour called it? "Callous." Excuse me? Who made the poorest poorer? Who left youth unemployment higher? Who made inequality greater? No, not the wicked Tories—you, Labour: you're the ones done it to this to our society. So don't you dare lecture us about poverty. You have failed and it falls to the modern Conservative party, to help poorest in our country today.

This comment is remarkable for how it acknowledges that income inequality is a real problem, attributes it as a consequence of left-wing policy, and argues that conservatives will respond by reducing it.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

It is a very forceful stance. Further literature on the ConservativeHome.com modernization site identifies other problems that need to be addressed: they include "Intergenerational Fairness", "Inequality across the UK", and "Unequal Life Chances."

This focus on inequality and equity is presented side by side with a declaration to tackle "Britain's High Tax Burden" and push for "lower, fairer protection for job creators." So an agenda that aims to address issues of equity has not taken away from the conservative focus on low taxes and smaller government.

America's Republicans will likely not mimic Britain's conservatives exactly, but their example shows it is possible for conservatives to respond to the accusation that they are not responsive to the needs of society's less fortunate and to craft policy answers that meet that need.

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