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Lord Flight: What the Conservatives might learn from the US Presidential Election

Lord FlightLord Flight was Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 2001-2004 and led for the Opposition on the FSMA.  He is now chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund.

In straight number terms, Obama won because 93% of the black community, 71% of Latinos, 60% of those aged 18-24 and 55% of women voted for him.  The two latter were the most numerate groups. This, effectively, out-voted 59% of white voters supporting Romney.

Behind these figures, however, are I believe some very different factors.  Perhaps the most important was the women’s vote.  Conservative Governments in the UK only won General Elections in the 20th Century, post the enfranchisement of women, when they had a lot of the women’s vote.  I suggest Romney’s problem was that his anti-abortion ticket offended a majority of women voters who, understandably, take the view that these matters are not the business of politicians.  Put another way, the “fundamentalist” constituency within the Republican Party is losing it elections. 

The huge 93% vote for Obama by black voters is, I believe, not surprising and understandable and represented only 9% of total votes.  Given US history, if I were black I would vote for the first black Presidential candidate, whatever his or her views.

Arguably, the Latino, 71% vote for Obama, is the most worrying statistics, put in a UK context.  America’s great success, until recently, has been to have an education system which has converted immigrants of all backgrounds into being firstly, proud American citizens.  Central to this has been that all teaching has been in English.  I suggest that changing to allow teaching in Spanish in predominantly Latino-populated areas is unfortunately divisive – counter to making everyone Americans and encouraging ethnic allegiances ahead of national allegiances.  There are analogies in the UK in terms of not integrating immigrant communities adequately. The Latino vote was in part motivated by both concerns over Republican public spending and welfare cuts, and tighter immigration policies. 

Like the Republicans, the Conservatives also need to do better in securing young voters’ support, but fewer tend to vote in the UK.

Turning to the UK, those who should most support the Conservative Party, as the Party of aspiration and hard work, are the Punjabi, Indian Sub-continent community who have the strongest achievement and work ethic in the county.  Yet the evidence is that they are majority Labour voters.  I suggest that if the leader of the Conservative Party were Punjabi, we would have a large majority of the Indian sub-continent vote.  The lesson here is that the Conservative Party should have very visible Indian representatives amongst leading Government Ministers, with whom the Indian electorate would identify.  The Conservatives’ problem in securing more Indian sub-continent votes has not, I believe, been their message but that there is no ready identification with the Conservative Party.

The message with regard to female voters is, I suggest, very obvious – the Conservative Party must avoid being associated with issues, such as abortion, which offend women voters.  They must also understand better what are the issues which are important for women.

There is, however, a much more delicate and difficult issue with regard to the wider immigrant vote.  I believe it would be simply wrong for the Conservative Party to “go slow” on its policies to rationalise welfare (which measures are actually generous) and to address welfare fraud; or to water down tightening up on immigration policies.  We are already more densely populated than the Indian sub-continent.  We want, and need, immigrants who bring valuable skills to this country, but we are too densely populated already to continue what was effectively an “open house” policy under the Labour Government.  A fight with the EU is ensuing to contain tens of thousands of Eastern European immigrants coming to the UK with access to the NHS next year when the existing limits of the last 5 years expire.  Some of the immigrant communities would agree with this, but many may not.

Finally, it might be argued that Romney did not identify sufficiently with the aspirations and views of the “indigenous” white collar American voters.  Here there is a crucially important presentational point for the Conservatives.  I have always believed it fundamental for the Conservative Party to be recognised as the Party of aspiration and not of a privileged elite.  This is not about paternalistic “social responsibility” politics – rather the reverse – but much more about identity.  Again, the Conservative Party needs to have a healthy leavening of articulate “Norman Tebbit” Conservatives amongst its leading Ministers, with the ability to communicate realistic, populist Conservatism.

As regards mainstream policies, one deduction from the US Presidential Elections is that these matter less than voter identification?  What is, I suggest, self-evident here is that the Conservative Party needs to get across much more effectively that the Gordon Brown high-spending, Government omnipotent policies have been largely responsible for landing this country in the economic mess it is in; i.e. wildly unaffordable Government spending – rather more than “the bankers”.  Here it was 2 particular banks, irresponsibly led, which caused major banking problems; but the banking problems have contributed to, rather than been the main cause, of the larger, Government deficit problems.  I think people do understand that the public sector has to be reduced if the country is to prosper.  What people want is an understandable map – rather than one off, or gimmicky policies – as to how the UK can return to prosperity.

The Socialist, anti-market economy, high public spending and, self-defeating, wealth redistribution policies, which Labour now espouses, need to be challenged robustly and not appeased.  We thought this sort of rubbish ended when the Berlin Wall came down.  It should never be forgotten that the GNP of Russia actually declined between 1914 (after it went Communist) and 1980.  Nothing demonstrates more the economic failure of State-directed, left wing management of an economy.  As soon as possible, Britain needs a smaller State, lower taxes and more competition – these are the key ingredients for economic recovery.


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