Strategy and tactics in British politics

In any longer term competitive activity it is useful to distinguish between strategy and tactics. This as true of politics as it is of anything else. It is surprising how few British political activists grasp the difference.

The current usage of the two words derives from the development of military theory in the 19th Century. Strategy focuses on long-term aims and how to achieve them. Tactics focuses on the here and now. Strategy guides your choice of which battles to fight; tactics help you win those battles. In politics strategy is mainly about identifying the coalition of voters you need to win and retain power. You then develop tactics to secure that coalition.

In British politics it is the Conservatives that grasp the usefulness of the distinction best. After 2005, its leader put into action a new strategy, which was to woo liberal-minded middle class voters to join the party’s existing base of conservative suburban and rural middle classes. This allowed it to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and then to win an outright majority by crushing that party in 2015, completely outmanoeuvring Labour. But to hold this shaky coalition together he had to promise a referendum on EU membership, which he lost, causing the collapse of his strategy. He sensibly bowed out. After Brexit the Conservatives, led by Theresa May, developed a new strategy. This was to bolster the rural and suburban core vote with Brexit-supporting lower middle-class and working class voters in the North, Midlands and Wales. The metropolitan middle classes would then be bullied into voting Tory by fear of Labour. This strategy seemed to be working in 2017, but Mrs May’s lousy tactical handling of the election in 2017 ended in failure. This election was a very good demonstration of the difference between strategy and tactics. Sound strategy was let down by bad tactics. When Boris Johnson took over from Mrs May last year, he retained her political strategy, but added much sharper tactical management to it. Aided by Labour’s strategic ineptitude, he was rewarded with a landslide last December.

Labour’s Tony Blair grasped the need for strategy very well. His strategy for Labour was to appeal to middle class voters while retaining its working class base. When he left the leadership in 2007, this strategy was getting stale, but his successor, Gordon Brown, had no clear alternative. Labour leaked metropolitan middle class votes both to the Tories and Lib Dems and lost. Since then Labour has shown little grasp of strategy and has preferred to focus on tactics instead. Ed Miliband’s strategy, inasmuch as there was one, seems to have been based on the idea of a “progressive majority”. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote, he reasoned, would be enough secure a winning coalition without the need to chase more conservative voters, as Mr Blair had. But the Lib Dem collapse favoured the Tories, not Labour, while in Scotland Labour was helpless facing the rise of the SNP. Under Jeremy Corbyn the party’s strategy was based more on hope than evidence; he assumed most voters were fed up with Tory austerity and angry about the way the rich seemed to be getting away with so much. There was also a hope that the party could bring in people who hadn’t voted before, especially younger voters. Alas for them they interpreted the relatively good result in 2017 as evidence of sound strategy. Labour instead strategised on what they would do if they won power – an area where Mr Blair was weak, as indeed have been most Conservative leaders. Political strategy and government strategy are different things.

Just how bad things are in Labour was illustrated by a remark of leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey. In her defence of Mr Corbyn’s record she said that the loss of the 2019 election was due to poor strategy. That’s a bit like saying that the result was down to weak leadership, and not the leader. Actually it is clear she actually meant “tactics” rather than “strategy”. Party activists, even senior officials, muddle the two up. It doesn’t help that most advisers on political tactics call themselves “strategists”.

The Lib Dems are no better than Labour on this. Nick Clegg, its leader in the 2010 election did seem to have some sort of strategy, which was to appeal to liberal-minded voters, and use coalition government to establish the party’s credentials as a serious political force, and so expand its voter base. This strategy collapsed on contact with reality after 2010, though poor tactical handling of the early coalition government didn’t help. By the 2015 election, the Lib Dems were reduced to fighting 30 seats as if they were by elections, so empty was their strategic appeal. Since then the party has remained consumed by tactical rather than strategic thinking, in particular with its focus on Brexit. But as the third party in a winner-takes-all electoral system, the party starts from a point of strategic weakness, so perhaps this is understandable.

A wider point needs to be made. The way I write about it suggests that political strategy is a matter of clever choices by senior party leaders, allowing them to lead a willing “army” to victory, rather as military strategy is a lot of the time. But political strategy involves compromises and pain. It is about identifying disparate coalitions of voters – but what you promise one part of the coalition will displease other parts. Mr Blair’s strategy so annoyed core metropolitan Labour support that he remains regarded as a traitor within the party. Mr Cameron’s coalition required the EU referendum to satisfy its core supporters, which came at a huge political cost. Tension within the new Tory coalition is obvious, especially over such matters as immigration policy.

The problem for Labour is that it has been, and probably still is, unable to face up to the compromises required to secure a winning coalition. Nothing very clear is coming from the leadership candidates. Lisa Nandy is best at articulating the problems, but is less clear on the painful choices Labour will need to make. Ms Long-Bailey still seems to hope that all Labour needs is sharper tactics. Kier Starmer says as little as he can about what he would actually do.

And the Lib Dems? What they do in large measure depends on the choices that the new Labour leadership does or does not make. Such is the lot of a third party.

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