THIS year, I attended the Conservative Party Conference, which has just concluded in Birmingham. As a historian of British politics, and as an American conservative who believes that the American and British systems are each excellent in their own way, it was not what I expected.
One point of comparison is obvious: both the US and Britain have party conventions. In theory, they serve different purposes. In the US, the quadrennial conventions nominate candidates for the presidency; in Britain, the leaders of the parties are already in place. But in practice, this difference between the systems has disappeared.
British conferences have become Americanised. In the US, it has been a long time since a convention genuinely chose a candidate. They now ratify decisions already made by the primary process, and exist only to win favourable (and free) publicity. The same is true in Britain.
In the not too distant past, Britain was different. The older attendees at Birmingham reminisced fondly about the 1980s, when motions from the floor were allowed. My historical work focuses on the early 1960s, when party managers were worried that they might lose a vote.
There is no chance of that today, and that is too bad. The Tories trumpeted a rise in membership, but the only party that is seeing steady growth is Ukip. They are also the only party that has not embraced the dull corporatism of the image consultant. It cannot be healthy for Tory activists to realise that their only role is to serve as the applause squad.
Birmingham was far from dull, thanks to the fringe events hosted by the IEA and Business for Britain, among other groups, and the Freedom Alliance’s Freedom Zone. But if the conference had been limited to the Party events, it would have been tedious, because little was at stake.
If the US and British conferences are now alike in that they exist primarily for television – and for the lobbyists – they are different in another respect. In the US, parties do adopt platforms. But while a great deal of work goes into these documents, they are read by very few people. US conventions seek to create an image, but they are not a place where nitty-gritty policy is made.
That is not true in Britain, where the goal of the conference in large part is to create an image by announcing actual policies. At Birmingham, for example, there was George Osborne’s abolition of the pensions death tax and the benefits cap, and David Cameron’s pledge to act against British extremist groups. That is far more specificity than you are likely to find at a US convention.
Undoubtedly these policies have been focus-grouped to exhaustion. But if they are so excellent, it is hard to understand why the Government did not advance them before. Like the conference as a whole, they are too obviously the fruit of a desire not to govern, but to appeal to carefully-selected voters in a few constituencies.
A political consultant would remark that any party that fostered genuine debate at its conference would lose every election. Fair enough. But I was struck by the number of people at Birmingham who contrasted the high turnout in the Scottish referendum with the modest turnout at recent British general elections.
It won’t do to explain this by saying that the fate of the Scottish nation was at stake. The last Labour government was fiscally incontinent to a degree that would not have looked out of place in the Mediterranean, and Labour shows no signs of having learned from that debacle. Elections in Britain matter just as much as referenda in Scotland.
At Birmingham, one MP said Britain’s disinterest stemmed from the West Lothian question: he called for the creation of an English parliament. An activist said it was because the party selected too many London barristers. Another said the Party did not recruit enough local candidates.
Plausible explanations all, but not completely persuasive. The example of Scotland implies that the people of a nation turn out when the vote is truly national. But today, political consulting, as refined in the United States by the Obama campaigns, often comes down to finding ways to slice the nation into ever-smaller sections that can be pandered to.
This works, no doubt. But, like all-applause Birmingham (and all-applause Labour at Manchester the week before), it is subtly alienating. The reason why many voters believe that politicians do not listen to them is simply that the voters are right: the politicians have found a more efficient way to win, and anyone who plays the game the old way will lose.
This is not just a question of turnout. It touches the heart of the British system: its parties. American-style campaigns can be off-putting even in the United States. But in the US, parties have always been weak coalitions designed to attract floating voters. Britain’s parliamentary system, by contrast, relies on strong parties that can make or break a government. But Birmingham and Manchester were shaped by the politics of the floating voter. That is the American way, and I love the American system. Just not when I see it in Britain.