I may have helped popularize the now well-known fact that Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections—or four of the last five, at the time I wrote. Britain’s post-Thatcher Tories have been in even worse shape: as their pollster Lord Ashcroft points out, the last time the Conservatives won an outright majority in Parliament was 1992. John Major was lucky in that he had only been prime minister for about a year and the public still wanted to give him a chance, while Labour’s leader was Neil Kinnock, who was very much yesterday’s news—the man Britain had already decided it didn’t want as prime minister back in 1987. And yet, says Ashcroft,
there was more to Major’s victory than the benefit of the doubt and a dream opponent. In the two years before the election, the Tory campaign built consistently on the theme of “opportunity for all”, both in tone and content. The rhetoric was matched by a coherent plan, which included the expansion of higher education, and the commitment to choice and accountability in public services. Tory motives were trusted to the extent that Labour failed to make a number of campaign lies stick (while five years later, their baseless claim that the Conservatives would privatise the state pension system quickly gained currency). Though mocked in some quarters, the talk of a classless society signalled a commitment to social mobility, the idea that we wanted to include rather than exclude, that we were for everyone.
… Ultimately, the lesson of 1992 is that a party of competence and decency, that can show it wants to improve opportunity for everyone, is a powerful force.
As it happens, “competence” and “decency” are words that I often find myself using for the qualities our own Republicans lack. “These things were more important than the negative campaign against Labour which, admittedly, was relentless,” Ashcroft says about the Tories’ 1992 victory.
“Opportunity for all” is a pretty good slogan, if you can say it with any conviction—and it’s not quite the same thing as David Cameron’s “modernisation” project or the kind of GOP rebranding that’s fashionable at the moment. Cameron’s push for same-sex marriage has been a disaster because it alienates his party’s core voters without overcoming the reservations that other voters have about what they see as exclusively the party of the rich. Marco Rubio’s entreaties to Hispanics may fail for the same reason. But likewise a right-wing strategy of appealing only to the party’s base while demonizing the rest of the country—the majority, in fact—as dependents on government, possible criminals, and moral reprobates is suicidal. Parties like the GOP and the Tories only have a prayer if they can sell themselves as vehicles of integration for everyone, through prosperity and law—parties for the 99 percent, plausibly offering opportunity for all.