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Learn from the Brits

BY JONATHAN GROVES | FEBRUARY 18, 2010 7:30 AM

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“I want to be the voice of change and hope. I want to confront the big challenges this country faces.”

Think this column is an homage to Obama? Think again. The above quotation is from a conservative.

What conservative could possibly have the rhetorical skills in the same realm as President Obama — and even sans teleprompter? Certainly, conservatives are incapable of promulgating such positivity.

David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain and leader of the opposition in Parliament, has been doing the “hope and change” bit since he was elected Conservative leader in 2005, well before Obama’s brand of “hope and change” spread across America.

When not lambasting Prime Minister Gordon Brown during prime minister’s questions (and Cameron does so with regularity, which you can watch on YouTube), Cameron has been pushing the party of Churchill and Thatcher to poll leads over Brown’s Labour Party. A recent ComRes poll for the Independent showed Conservatives with an 11 percent edge. All this means the Tories are likely to exit the political wilderness they entered when Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997.

Lately, British Conservatives are riding the wave of changing voter preference. The ruling Labour Party has been in power a long time, and the accumulating grievances of British voters have caught up with it, UI history Professor Jeffrey Cox wrote in an e-mail. Cox teaches modern British history and is working in London for the semester.

So what does this mean for American politics?

In order to get back into power, Republicans need to recognize that the Conservatives in Britain are campaigning on the same issues as Republicans. The difference in issues lies in the fact that Cameron has well thought-out and articulate explanations for his policy ideas, going beyond just opposing Brown. Republicans need to get beyond just being the opposition and should promote themselves as an alternative that promises more individual freedom and opportunity.

To be fair, I think it was completely necessary for Republicans to be “the party of no” in opposing health-care and cap-and-trade legislation. However, I know voters — especially the all-important independent voters — need to hear specific plans from Republican candidates in the upcoming midterm elections, as well as a positive plan of action in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.

The tide has turned in their favor, and Republicans now need to turn with the tide.

To find this positive message, we must again go to swinging London, baby. Here, Cameron has adapted conservative ideals to fit the concerns of his presumptive voters with a positive message and plan for his country. He has brought back the concept of “compassionate conservatism” on top of a fresh, young face for Conservatives, Cox said.

Cameron has not done this by promising to outspend the Labour Party or glossing over issues.

Cameron wants to fix what he calls Britain’s “broken society” with plans to “give people more power and opportunity over their own lives.”

In short, Cameron has promised Conservative ideas — not reworded Labour ideas. Republicans need to do much the same to win voters, especially the Tea Party movement, which polling suggests is rich with independent voters and is not the Astroturf movement that Democrats wishfully think it is.

As of yet, the Republican Party has not quite figured out how to woo the Tea Partiers. But I think they would be more successful in attracting these voters if they found a better way of explaining exactly what conservatism means in America today.

Rather than favoring groups or promoting top-down solutions, conservatism rests power with the individual. That is what Cameron has explained so well to the British people, and it is what Republican leaders need to explain better to Americans.

Republicans have been successful in criticizing the Democrats for forcing unpopular legislation on the American people. But they need to seize the opportunity to define American conservatism in modern terms — much as Cameron has redefined modern British conservatism — before Democrats take the chance to do it for them.


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