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The Lesson of US 2012 for British Tories: Appeal to the Middle Class or Someone Else Will

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American conservatives suffered a decisive setback at the hands of Barack Obama this year, a loss more profound for the optimistic predictions of GOP victory. The sense of defeat on election night, like the tears, was real. Unless the British Conservative party wants to suffer the same fate, they must heed the lessons of the American contest. For in many ways, 2012 should have been a home run for Mitt Romney.

Republicans nominated one of the most accomplished and qualified leaders to run for Presidential office in years. This was no congressional war-horse like Bob Dole or John McCain. Candidate Romney was a governor with a record of bipartisanship like Bill Clinton or George W Bush. He had moderate credentials through health care reform in Massachusetts. Obama himself admitted he failed to produce a genuine economic recovery, the one thing he had promised, so Romney's business experience favoured change. Yet Barack still beat him among the independents who count most in our elections.

The analogies with David Cameron's Conservatives are striking. Cameron is also an able and articulate leader who promised renewal for his party. He was chosen for who is he is rather than who he is not, in contrast to successful 'spoilers' of the past such as John Major or Iain Duncan-Smith. He has shown he is willing to compromise to win power, safeguarding health care (like Romney) to rebrand the Tories, and then governing with the Liberal Democrats. So why is his government losing to Labour by 10% in the polls?

The answer, in large part, is that Cameron shares Romney's liabilities as much as his strengths.

Neither leader has made any convincing attempt to mitigate the message of austerity. In this global economy, any responsible politician knows government has got to spend less and/or bring in more. But both men advertised their austere policies by choosing austere lieutenants. Romney appointed the most prominent budget cutter in Congress as his running mate, just as Cameron picked a young fiscal hawk as chancellor in George Osborne. It is true that Paul Ryan has everyman appeal that worked on the campaign trail. But the Tea Party spirit never truly transformed into an uplifting, positive message for the GOP. Ryan's main role was to explain bad news with good humour, just like Osborne, and in doing so he personified lean times.

It is the related, but less tangible, quality of being 'out of touch' that hurts conservative leadership the most. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama actually scored closely in polls regarding their personal qualities and political abilities throughout the campaign. But when asked if the candidate 'cares about people like me', Obama trounced his GOP counterpart handily, by 59% to 37%. Aloofness has also been the calling card of the current British administration. Senior Tories charge the Prime Minister is overly dependent on his closest advisors and dismisses the priorities of the rank and file. Because Cameron, like Romney, is a wealthy man with some wealthy supporters, this is especially damaging as it feeds the narrative that he does not identify with ordinary people.

It was just a few hundred thousand ordinary people in Ohio that ended Mitt Romney's presidential dream on election night. But they sent a message from everyone who has not shared in the good times. The stubborn fact is that US median incomes never recovered from the Bush years. Unlike every other recovery in American history, the family right in the middle of the pecking order saw no gains during the first boom of the new century. Romney, harried by right wing opponents until late into the campaign cycle, offered no credible plan to raise modest incomes from the outset. By contrast, Obama owned the powerful sentiment for more broadly based prosperity from the beginning, but put it to work in the cause of yet more government spending, just as he did in 2008.

To have any chance of re-election, Cameron must exploit the opportunities Romney's team overlooked. Instead of sidelining his populist opponents as the GOP did the Tea Party, he should include them. Offering a referendum on EU membership would go a long way to win back the 10% the UK Independence Party is taking from Tories in the polls. Instead of getting caught up in social issues like gay marriage, he should offer a convincing plan for income growth by agreeing projects like a third Heathrow runway. He still has time to rescue the promise of the 'Big Society' by increasing home ownership through Green Belt development, rather than back peddling in the face of environmental opposition. People vote Conservative when they see action that improves their ability to provide for themselves, and decide for themselves.

Finally, David Cameron and Mitt Romney are leaders in the patrician mold who claim to use their fortunate position to help others. But to gain enough middle class votes for his own government, Cameron will have to convince us he offers a radical plan for improvement. Otherwise a new generation of forward-looking conservatives will replace his insulated approach, just as they are in the US.