Bromund: Britain's lesson for U.S. conservatives

British Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party formed a coalition government with Liberal Democrats after the 2010 general election. Above, he speaks during a debate on Syria, in Britain's Parliament, on Aug. 29, 2013. Photo Credit: AP

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Britain is led by a coalition of two parties: the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. That may well change in 2015, after the next election. Conservatives' difficulties in Britain offer lessons for their U.S. counterparts.

For the past several days, I've met with politicians, journalists and policy experts in Britain. The sentiment is strong that Britain's next government will be led by the left-leaning Labour Party.

On the surface, it's surprising. Labour is widely blamed for ruining the British economy and opening its borders to immigration from Eastern Europe. Since immigrants get almost full access to Britain's welfare state, this is unpopular. Moreover, Labour's leader is the uncharismatic son of a Marxist philosopher.

So why does Labour have the edge?

The Conservatives trail in part because of the system. The U.S. electoral system is criticized for gerrymandering -- drawing political boundaries for partisan purposes. But compared with the British system, American gerrymandering is a model of fairness.

Britain was supposed to redraw its political boundaries last year. But a Conservative effort was blocked by their coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats. In Britain, people move from failing cities, which vote Labour, to successful suburbs, which vote Conservative -- just as in the United States they move from California to Texas.

So today, Conservative constituencies have more voters than Labour ones. This means the Conservatives need a lead of about 11 percent to win. In a political system with three major parties and many smaller ones, that's asking a lot.

But the Conservatives also have problems of their own, and here there are some valuable lessons for their U.S. counterparts in the Republican Party.

After 1997, British Conservatives lost three elections in a row. Desperate, they abandoned their mantra of calling for lower taxes and efficient government. The so-called "modernizers" -- more concerned with building windmills than businesses -- took over.

So when the global economy tanked in 2008, the Conservatives had no credible strategy for promoting growth. After winning a narrow victory, they focused on balancing the budget by raising taxes. They talked about austerity but didn't cut spending dramatically. The result was that they get blamed for being tough, but didn't, until recently, begin to receive the economic benefits of trimming the state.

It's tempting for low-tax, pro-growth parties like the GOP to abandon those principles to appeal to swing voters. But the lesson from Britain is that giving up on your principles isn't guaranteed to win you votes. And if you win, it leaves you without a strategy you believe in.

The other Conservative problem is more insidious. For many, the Conservatives, like the GOP, are the party of the elite. That makes it all the more important to respond to popular concerns -- and now, there is no more widespread concern in Britain than the amount of immigration.

But as long as Britain is in the European Union, the government cannot stop Europeans from moving to Britain. As a result, the Conservative vote is being pulled away to other parties willing to oppose both immigration and British membership in the EU.

More British voters than ever see all the major parties as a political elite -- separated from the people, too eager to help foreigners, and unconcerned with the problems of Britain. The Conservatives have failed, up to now, to differentiate themselves. There are few compelling reasons to vote for them, and given Labour's political advantage, that means Labour is more likely to win.

In Britain, the Conservative "me too" strategy has failed. Being different is challenging, sometimes unpopular, and even risky. But in both sides of the Atlantic, it's the only way to win.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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