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8 February 2013

Heresy of the week: England needs a second Conservative Party

In terms of the popular vote, the Republican Party has lost five of the last six presidential elections. Some might say they ought to try a different tack.

However, as David Brooks points out in another brilliant column for the New York Times, change isn’t easy:

  • “Change is hard because people don’t only think on the surface level. Deep down people have mental maps of reality — embedded sets of assumptions, narratives and terms that organize thinking. Since Barry Goldwater, the central Republican narrative has been what you might call the Encroachment Story: the core problem of American life is that voracious government has been steadily encroaching upon individuals and local communities.”

The trouble with such an all-consuming narrative is that it leaves you with very little to say on the “social and economic problems that don’t flow directly from big government.”

So why not tell a different story – or at least a more varied one? Because, says Brooks, “people almost never change their underlying narratives or unconscious frameworks”: 

  • “Moreover, in the South and rural West, where most Republicans are from, the Encroachment Story has deep historic and psychological roots. Anti-Washington, anti-urban sentiment has characterized those cultures for decades.”

In order to break the Democrats’ lock on the electoral map, Brooks proposes a radical solution:

  • “It’s probably futile to try to change current Republicans. It’s smarter to build a new wing of the Republican Party, one that can compete in the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic states, in the upper Midwest and along the West Coast…
  • “Would a coastal and Midwestern G.O.P. sit easily with the Southern and Western one? No, but majority parties are usually coalitions of the incompatible.”

Brooks doesn’t say much about the mechanics of such an arrangement, but it does pose an intriguing question for us in Britain: Do we need a second Conservative Party?

Like the Republicans in America, there are large parts of the country where we just don't feature. Even looking at England alone, we face major obstacles among northern, urban and ethnic voters.

If truth be told, the primary reason for this is that the Conservative Party projects (and has projected on to it) an image that alienates much of the electorate. This is more an issue of identity than ideology. Whether in its centrist or rightist varieties, what works in the Tory heartlands, doesn't work elsewhere.

Up until 2010, the Lib Dems effectively operated as two parties with different identities – the 'moderates' who could beat Conservatives in rural seats and the 'radicals' who could beat Labour in urban seats. These days, things don’t look too good for the first lot of Lib Dems, but the second lot are heading for extinction – which makes the need for a second Conservative Party all the more urgent.

What might such a party look like? Well, for a start, not like UKIP – which competes in the same cultural space as the existing Conservative Party. What we need is a party of the working men’s club, not the golf club – and if we don’t get it soon then Labour will get a lock on the electoral map that even America's Democrats would be jealous of.


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