David Frum, former speechwriter to President George W Bush, and now a commentator and frequent blogger at the Daily Beast, was at Policy Exchange* yesterday in conversation with Daniel Finkelstein – to discuss why Mitt Romney lost the US presidential race, and more broadly to ponder his views on Conservatism and electoral strategy.
One of the most striking things he said was right at the beginning: that the Republicans had sent a “strong message of exclusion” to large numbers of voters. I wrote a bit about this over Mitt Romney’s 47 per cent ‘gaffe’ (though as Frum also pointed out, that was no gaffe or slip of the tongue – it was not a one-off, and was a deliberate part of their strategy). I worry that a lot of what voters hear from Conservatives could be heard in a similar vein – we talk about groups of people as ‘them’ over equal marriage, over welfare reform, over new Britons (who by the way have actively chosen to be British which says a lot about how they view the country), and as women.
The other thing he said that really hit home with me (and I accept that this is probably because I think this already) was that parties need to listen to the people who are only with them in the good times – because those are the people who tip the party into winning an election. In order for the good (electoral) times to prevail, the concerns and hopes of the non-core voter need to be answered. He was at pains to point out that this does not mean alienate and ignore your core but that it is an essential, non-negotiable part of building your coalition to win.
ConservativeHome has an intriguing piece this morning about the Eastleigh by-election and what it means for the next two years. I think the second last paragraph is especially worthy of note: focusing on that broad sweep of issues is vital. What Frum calls ‘cultural branding’ however is perhaps the most important part, and that is not something that can be substantively changed overnight, however many leaflets you deliver in three weeks (I’d love to see a collection of every leaflet delivered in Eastleigh, by the way, even though if I lived there I would have binned them all without reading… which is a problem for another day).
Cultural branding is the sine qua non of politics. I don’t care how many promises they make – I will never vote Labour because I believe they want to level down rather than offer a strong foundation on which people’s own efforts can build but which require people to make those efforts. And that, in reverse, is the problem that the Conservatives have. People who don’t vote for us think that we don’t like them or don’t care about them or actively want to do them down. That can be worked on but it requires will and focus and laser-like effort to understand how to remove that strong message of exclusion that David Frum talked about.
I don’t know for sure but there might be a video up here at some point