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Britain’s Cameron Offers Lessons for Republicans in U.S.

In the London Times Online recently, editorial page editor Daniel Finkelstein offered some friendly advice to Tory Party leader David Cameron on the eve of his speech to the annual Party Conference — the British equivalent, in terms of national media attention, of a presidential acceptance speech to our parties’ nominating conventions. [IMGCAP(1)]

As a self-described “uber-moderniser,” Finkelstein urged Cameron to “show that he still carries the modernizing torch.” Further, Finkelstein called for a “sharp break from the strategy” that had cost the Tories victory in the past three national elections.

It was a difficult moment for British conservatives, especially party reformers. When Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped down in June, there was a widespread belief that incoming Prime Minister Gordon Brown would shift from the centrist-outcome-based philosophy of Blair to become a liberal ideologue.

Moreover, the remarkable communication skills of Blair seemingly had been absent during Brown’s years as chancellor, earning him a reputation for dour economic speak and raising questions about his ability to lead.

So it was not unreasonable, as Brown took charge, for conservatives to assume the departure of Blair gave them their best political opening in a decade. After all, the situation was not unlike the 2000 U.S. election, when Vice President Al Gore, who also lacked the communications abilities of his predecessor, gave Republicans an opportunity when he moved left and away from the centrist policies of President Bill Clinton.

But only three months after Blair left office, to the great consternation of many British conservatives, it turned out Brown was an able politician who in just a few months as party leader had brought Labour to a double-digit advantage over the Tories in national polls. It was expected that with this kind of commanding lead, Brown would soon call for national elections to reaffirm the Labour majority as a new government of his making, not an extension of Blair’s leadership.

Additionally, by holding and winning a national election, it was assumed that the new prime minister effectively could destabilize the Tory Party, as another election loss likely would have triggered bitter arguments over party strategy and policies and created leadership contests that only would further divide conservatives.

It was in this difficult political environment that Cameron took center stage in Blackpool to deliver the major speech at the Party Conference. To stave off another Tory defeat, Cameron would have to step up, give clear direction to his party, keep it united and provide a persuasive alternative to the people of Britain.

Over the summer, some who had seen Brown as an albatross around Labour’s neck argued that with Blair out of the picture, the party’s program, rejected by voters in the past, would finally produce a conservative victory. Others like the “uber-modernisers” believed that the party needed to offer more than just traditional conservative philosophy.

Yes, Tories had to propose an agenda that would “appeal to their core vote.” But their definition of the core vote was more expansive, going beyond the party base to represent a winning majority coalition that included the middle class and women.

They argued for a more optimistic approach and against a “vicious attack strategy” aimed at the opposition. Instead, they asserted Tories needed to explain to voters who they are and what they stand for, with the emphasis on “for,” and how their reform policies based on conservative principles will make life better for all Britons.

Cameron embraced the reformers’ message and managed to do the impossible. Just as he had used a speech at the Party Conference two years before to rise from relative obscurity and become Tory leader, he captured headlines across Britain with a dramatic speech that provided a clear and compelling contrast between the Tory and Labour parties and their policies.

National polls have shifted in the two weeks since his speech, with some putting the Tories in the lead, causing Brown and his Labour Party to back off on calling for elections.

For Republicans and conservatives here in this country, Cameron’s speech is a helpful lesson in how to successfully position a party based on sound policies and principles and an optimistic vision of the future.

Cameron criticized Labour Party policy failures “because … if we don’t understand why they have failed, we won’t succeed,” he said; but he did so in the context of offering positive conservative policy alternatives on a range of issues. “Change, real change isn’t just about winning elections; real change is about getting ready to govern our country,” he said.

Cameron acknowledged the disillusionment of the British people with their government’s ability to effect change; but perhaps most importantly, he challenged his party, saying, “We’ve got to inspire them; we’ve got to say to them, ‘it doesn’t have to be like this.’” Cameron struck a chord with the people of Britain with what he called his “politics of belief.”

With the U.S. elections only a year away, Republican presidential and Congressional candidates should approach 2008 in the same vein as Cameron, as an opportunity to inspire the American people to believe in their ideas, in their vision and in their optimism that change is possible.

Cameron closed his speech with a challenge to Brown to “Call that election. We will fight. Britain will win.” Republicans don’t have to call for an election, but they do need to fight for change and for an agenda that offers hope to the people of this country. If they do, America will win.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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