Having been in America during the 2008 election, and now returning to Britain for the (probable) election in 2010, I am worried about the similarities I see between the Cameron brand of Conservatism and the McCain brand of Conservatism.
It would take more than one blog post to analyse why the McCain campaign failed and the Obama campaign won, but it can be summed up to three areas.
1. How Bush gave the Republicans a handicap.
2. How the Obama campaign won.
3. How the McCain campaign flopped.
I want to focus briefly on this final point. There is often a view that Obama was so charismatic and so popular, and people were so desperate to get away from Bush, that the McCain campaigned was doomed before it began, and it wasn't McCain's fault that he lost. While I concede on some of this (Bush certainly gave the G.O.P a handicap, and Obama certainly had a lot going for him) there are many in America, both liberal and conservative, who are convinced that this was an election not only that Obama won, but that McCain lost. The fact is that Obama was not a strong candidate for the Democrats. He is a left-wing radical who is not in tune with the majority of Americans, who does not have a great amount of experience, and who hangs around with some very shifty characters (now he simply appoints them as special advisors.) What the well-run campaign managed to do was wrap him up in spin and slogans, endlessly talking about 'change' and how 'historic' his election would be, and they got in.
Yet all the McCain campaign needed to do was wade through all the spin and bring it down to policies and principles, and they could have changed the election. As we are seeing since Obama was elected, the new President is not good with specifics. As long as he remains general, he remains popular, but now he is getting into specifics, his approval ratings are free-falling. The Stimulus package is seen as a failure, his instinct to attack the police in 'Gatesgate' shocked Americans who value their force, Cap and Trade is unpopular, and as specifics on his healthcare plan leak out, more and more protests break out. All McCain needed to do was fight on principles and specifics, and he could have really nailed him. But he didn't. Why?
It is my proposal that McCain had himself dropped many of his conservative principles in order to present himself as a reconciler, as 'bi-partisan', as someone who could step across the aisle to the other side etc etc. He wasn't a strong conservative, he didn't represent anything clear, any principles, any strong system of values that distinguished him from the swish senator opposing him. Therefore no clear message came out of the McCain camp, gave no-one a good reason to vote for him, the Conservative movement never really got behind him, and it meant that McCain could only deal in generalities, and any specific policies sounded disorientated and tacked on. He could only attack Obama on superficial things, he could never attack Obama's principles by constrasting them with his own. He could never say with convicton "I believe in THIS principle, and therefore it follows that we need to do THIS." So he fought on generalities, he failed to cut through the Obama spin campaign, and show who the Democrat candidate really was, and Obama charged through.
So nearly a year later, we turn to the upcoming British election, and take a look at David Cameron. I see a shocking amount of similarities between him and McCain. More recently the Shadow Cabinet have been declaring themselves 'more progressive' than the Labour party, a term that should send alarm bells ringing in the head of anyone who believes in Conservative principles. There does not seem to be any set of principles that unite what will end up in the Manifesto, and this is concerning. The Tory part at the moment seems to believe in doing a)what seems to be popular at the moment and b) the opposite of Labour.
There are two main risks to this. One - that people will vote for the Tories only because they hate Labour, which could give a future Tory government a false confidence, and also mean they don't really have the support of the electorate. Such a government would fall at the first hurdle and would probably drift back to a Labour government at the next election.
The second is that it could easily lose the next election if Labour manage to pull themselves together under a 'new' and 'bold' and 'fresh' leader. As I write this, I have in mind the young high-flying David Miliband. My concern is that a Conservative party based not on conservative principles, but only on spin and cynical gimmick statements and policies, could easily have its way to government blocked if Brown were to resign, Miliband take over and present the Labour party as having a 'fresh new outlook.' I don't know who would win in a Miliband v Cameron election battle, but would it matter? Would there be a great difference between the two?
What ultimately is the point in fighting for a Tory party victory if it is not a party that is particularly fond of its own founding principles of conservatism. What would there in a Cameron-Conservative goverment that people could get excited about? If we have a party that, being so keen to be elected, is prepared to drop its traditional understandings of localism, of taxation, of the role of government, of the strength of the private sector, of crime and punishment, of foreign policy - then why vote Tory at all, except for to get away from Gordon Brown? People respect people with strong principles, even if they don't necessarily agree with those principles. If the electorate detects that this is a party that has been prepared to drop its principles at the door in favour of a vague "Modern Liberal Conservatism" that amounts to nothing more than a cynical grasp for popularity, then it is not a party they will get behind with any passion whatsoever, a party that would not be strong in government, and a party that could easily be swept aside if Labour were to get their act together under a 'fresh' leader promising change.
Dropping principles at the door was one of the reasons McCain lost the 08 U.S election, and if the Tories are not careful, it could be why the Cameron ticket loses the 10 U.K election.