Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders proudly claimed that American economic policy should look more like Scandinavia’s.
But for Republican presidential hopefuls, it might be more fruitful to turn their gaze slightly to the south of Scandinavia — to the United Kingdom, where Conservative prime minister David Cameron won an unexpectedly robust victory in last Thursday’s general election. Not only did Cameron stave off predictions of defeat by the center-left Labour Party, his Tories won an absolute (if small) majority in the House of Commons, increasing his caucus by 24 MPs. This, in turn, will allow Cameron to govern for the next five years without a coalition partner. That’s all well and good considering that the Liberal Democrats lost 48 of their 56 seats in Parliament.
It’s rare, in a parliamentary system, for a government to win reelection with even greater support, let alone after five years of budget cuts and economic contraction that transformed into GDP growth only in the last two years. Margaret Thatcher was the last prime minister to do so in 1983, and that followed her stupendous victory against Argentina in the Falklands War of 1982.
For U.S. conservatives, Cameron’s victory in winning the first Tory majority since 1992 should provide a road map for the kinds of policies that can pave the way to a GOP victory in 2016. Republicans know that they’ve won a popular vote majority just once since 1988, and demographic changes are making the Republican presidential coalition more elderly, white and rural in an increasingly young, multiracial and urban society.
Cameron benefitted from smart political strategy that painted Labour, fairly or unfairly, as untrustworthy stewards of the British economy. He also appealed to the fears of English voters in warning that a Labour government, propped up by votes from the pro-independence Scottish National Party, would amount to a “coalition of chaos” in Westminster. Cameron also benefitted from doubts among British voters about Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, who pulled Labour to the left of Tony Blair’s third-way “New Labour”centrism and who never seemed to fit the role of potential prime minister.
Nevertheless, there are at least three areas where Republicans could replicate Cameron’s agenda and, potentially, turn the tables on Democrats in 2016.
Crafting family-friendly economic policies that reduce inequality. The meat of Cameron’s economic policy — further reduction of Britain’s 5% deficit, additional spending cuts (excepting the National Health Service) and modest tax relief — will be familiar territory to American conservatives. But Republicans thumbing through the 2015 Conservative manifesto might be surprised with what they also find – for starters, a pledge to double the amount of state-funded child care for three- and four-year olds and a promise to eliminate income tax entirely for minimum-wage workers. When conservative Tony Abbott won Australia’s 2012 election, one of his Liberal Party’s most popular pledges was to widen the government’s paid parental leave scheme, though an increasingly unpopular Abbott has since abandoned it.
With Hillary Clinton, a longtime champion of women’s rights at home and abroad, trumpeting the historic nature of her candidacy to become the first female U.S. president, it will be vital for Republicans to show that their policies can offer ways to reduce economic inequalities between men and women. The United States is just one of a very small number of counties that lacks paid maternity leave. The next Republican presidential nominee could blunt the symbolic nature of Clinton’s campaign by championing (like Abbott) mandatory maternity leave or (like Cameron) a greater role for the government in providing child care. Moreover, it’s a move that Republicans can sell to its evangelical Christian base as a policy that buttresses families. Lowering or even eliminating federal income tax for the poorest working Americans, too, falls squarely within Republican tax dogma, and it could expunge the bad taste of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” remarks. Extra credit for making the argument that all of these policies could do more than Democratic policies to address growing income inequality.
Restoring (in part) civil liberties. It’s true that the Liberal Democrats strong influenced the civil libertarian cast of the previous Cameron government. Nevertheless, Cameron has a strong record on rolling back some of the widening police state that made Labour’s previous government so unpopular. Home secretary Theresa May promptly cancelled Labour’s heavy-handed scheme to introduce national identity cards and rolled back the use of closed-circuit television cameras and plans to build databases of DNA samples and other personal information. As justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke at least tried to make the case for sentencing reform that would reduce terms for non-violent offenders. Untethered from the Liberal Democrats, however, the next Tory government promises to enact anti-terror laws that allow greater Internet surveillance (the so-called “snooper’s charter”) and to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act that incorporates the Convention of European Human Rights.
The Tory backtrack would be a shame, because one of Cameron’s most potent cases against Labour in 2010 capitalized on growing anxious over the creeping security state. The United States, 14 years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, is well overdue for an honest discussion about the balance of liberty versus security in society. Though Republicans seem unlikely to anoint Senator Rand Paul, the most libertarian of the 2016 contenders, as their nominee, they would do well to incorporate some of his ideas about how to restore the balance of civil liberties. A lighter hand, from security officials in airports to trigger-happy police on city streets, should be a popular stand with the American electorate. That’s even more so after the traumatic deaths that have soured police-civilian relations and exacerbated the American racial divide from Ferguson to Baltimore. Furthermore, by endorsing the efforts of former attorney general Eric Holder to reduce lengthy prison terms for violations of drug offenses and to introduce more compassion in federal sentencing, Republicans could make a good-faith effort that they are committed to rolling back a justice system that systemically discriminates against African-Americans.
Embracing marriage equality. Notwithstanding the opposition of social conservatives on his own backbenches, Cameron joined forces with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to enact same-sex marriage in England and Wales in July 2013. Cameron couched his support for marriage equality in terms of fundamental conservative principles, and many U.S. conservatives are gradually realizing that supporting same-sex marriage can also mean supporting a policy that builds families, supports communities and, at its heart, embodies individual freedom.
Christianity and, in particular, the evangelical tradition, is much stronger in the United States than in England. That means the backlash to any Republican presidential candidate who endorses marriage equality will be stronger than any blowback that Cameron received. Nevertheless, as the tide of public opinion swells in favor of equal rights for LGBT couples, the 2016 Republican nominee could make wide gains among young voter, winning back some of the Millennial and post-Millennial electorate that, in aggregate, generally prefers Democrats over Republicans. After 13 years in opposition, and with a reputation that May herself described back in 2002 as “the nasty party,” there’s almost nothing Cameron could have done that does more to signal that today’s Conservative Party is modern and inclusive. The Supreme Court may have already determined the path of same-sex marriage in the United States by the time the first votes are cast in 2016. But even if marriage equality becomes law by judicial instead of legislative means, forward-looking conservatives in 2016 have much to gain by welcoming same-sex marriage. It’s still not too late for Republicans to evolve on this issue, least of all by pointing out that Democrats, including the first Clinton administration, did little until very recently to ease the path of LGBT equality.
Cameron rose to the Conservative leadership in 2005 as a “modernizer” who would recalibrate his party’s priorities, and his move to the center quickly earned him the title as “heir to Blair.” Those efforts have sometimes been cringeworthy, and in some cases, such as climate change, Cameron’s rhetoric never matched his record. Nevertheless, Thursday’s election represents the fruits of his decade-long struggle. As he begins the second term of what promises to be a decade in power. Republicans disregard the lessons of Cameron’s success at their peril.
Kevin Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and the editor of Suffragio.