What U.S. conservatives can learn from David Cameron

Story highlights

  • Timothy Stanley: UK elections came in very different context than U.S. politics
  • Still, Cameron's acceptance of gay marriage and his conservative economics proved to be winning issues

Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A group of Republicans visited the UK during its recent election campaign to work for the Conservative Party. What lessons, I wonder, will they take back home with them? Perhaps that there is a growing anti-big government mood across the world, and that a laser-like focus on economics can help the right exploit it.

The victory of the Conservative Party in this week's British elections came as a surprise to all of us. I was at a right-wing dinner in London just before the results came out and we found ourselves slipping into talk of what to do after the Conservatives had lost. Ideas ran from pushing the party to the left, to pushing the party to right, to just giving up and moving to Alaska. So when the results came in and showed Prime Minister David Cameron winning handsomely, we suddenly had to think about what went right rather than what went wrong.
Timothy Stanley
For Americans, any lessons come with a big qualification. The Conservative victory was due in part to the unique dynamic of Scottish vs. English nationalism. In Scotland, the local Nationalists dominated polling. In England, the left-wing Labour Party seemed destined to do a deal with the Scottish Nationalists if they got into government -- and English voters backed the Conservatives rather than let that scenario play out.
    It's all very complicated, but comes down to this: the campaign was very negative and hinged a lot on who you hated more. And, over all, more people hated the Scottish Nationalists and the Labour Party than hated the Conservatives. So the latter won.
    But Republicans looking at the long-term reasons behind Cameron's success can still learn one or two things. First, the British Conservative Party has moved beyond social and religious issues. By supporting the legalization of gay marriage, for instance, Cameron effectively laid to rest any associations between this party and homophobic prejudice. The move wasn't uncontroversial. It sparked a huge rebellion among his own supporters and was partly behind the rise of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party. But it also made it easier for centrist, urban voters to back Cameron without feeling that they were compromising their liberal conscience.
    Second, the Conservatives identified themselves aggressively with fiscal discipline and opposition to high taxes. Cameron's government has dramatically cut welfare rolls, spending and taxes. The left said that this would lead to another recession, but it hasn't: the UK has enjoyed the fastest rate of growth in the developed world and its highest ever rate of employment, as the government pointed out. In other words, conservative economics works.
    Republicans can now point to a number of countries across the world that have experimented with their "cut, cap and balance" approach and succeeded. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and now Britain have all joined the club of budget cutting winners.
    And it's not only the right who have something to learn from this election. Labour's hapless campaign was run by David Axelrod, the genius who helped bring the world President Barack Obama (Jim Messina, another Obama man, helped out the Conservatives). His employment was unhelpful: Axelrod was parodied as a nice-but-out-of-place American.
    The big idea was to win with a "core vote strategy". Rather than reaching out to swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum, Labour tried to excite and mobilize its grassroots support -- planning to win a majority in Parliament by bringing left-wing voters out in huge numbers. They combined that with an excellent ground operation that they boasted gave them direct contact to some four million voters.
    It was all a mistake. Falling back on old-fashioned, left-wing policies allowed the Conservatives and the press to paint Labour as neo-Marxists. The left obviously didn't appeal to those voters who felt threatened by the possibility of higher taxes on properties. It also left the party struggling to give palatable answers to questions that often demanded a right-wing, populist response. The party's position on immigration, for instance, was unclear. Sensing that working-class voters wanted tough action to reduce foreign-born migrant numbers, Labour announced that it was all for "controls on immigration" and even put the phrase on a souvenir mug. It stank of opportunism and impressed no one.
    In short, it would seem that the left loses when it fails to reach out to the center ground. But it also loses when it appears to be compromising its identity in a rush for votes. You might ask what on Earth it can do to resolve such a contradiction. The answer is that the left has to move to the center without being seen to move to the center. For that, it needs stirring leadership in touch with people's real concerns. Labour's now ex-leader, Ed Miliband was robotic. He was Michael Dukakis with an English accent -- synthetic, awkward and uninspiring.
    Cameron's performance was rarely better, but he came closer to that right mix of human and authoritative that wins votes. Allied to a commitment to reduce the size of the state and grow the economy, he provided a more appealing alternative to Miliband. That, and terror of the Scottish Nationalists, is probably how he won.