by GK Strategy 8th November, 2013
3 min read

The Triumph of the Tactical

The March of the Managers

British politics over the past 60 years has become managerial and pragmatic in tone, increasingly so as the Thatcherite settlement became tacitly accepted by all major parties. Where there were once deep divides over the structure of the economy, the public ownership of key industries, state education and social issues such as marriage and abortion, there is now broad agreement – with a few notable exceptions.

This might not be a bad thing in some ways. Businesses and investors can take more confidence knowing that incoming governments are unlikely to upset the apple cart by renationalising huge swaths of British industry. And they can capitalise on increasing competition and outsourcing in areas previously dominated by the public sector. As our politicians increasingly compete to show their managerial competence, rather than their ideological purity, the prospect of stable commercial environments in which to invest has also increased.

But where does that leave the voter? It is often said that the main reason for voter apathy is this same lack of ideology and genuine disagreement. There is some truth in this. The two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, have seen their share of the vote fall from almost 100% in the decade immediately following the Second World War to just 65% in 2010. And that trend doesn’t look like slowing down, with the Green Party winning its first Commons seat at the last election, and the UK Independence Party waiting in the wings to hoover up an even greater number of votes in 2015, perhaps after securing first place in the European elections this coming May.

The Demise of Deference

So far the two major parties have held off threats from outside, retaining their dominant position at the heart of government. But in a system that is fraying at the edges, voters are increasingly turning their fire on what they perceive as a political class that is “out of touch”. And in an age of unprecedented transparency and real-time information, this has led to what we could call the “demise of deference”: politicians constantly on trial, often via Twitter and other social media networks.

There are two ways in which politicians can respond to these trends. The first is to undertake a thorough reassessment of their historic values and principles in order to better communicate these to a reluctant electorate. This process often dubbed “modernisation”, has been haltingly and partially attempted, first by Labour under Tony Blair’s leadership, and latterly by the Conservatives under David Cameron. But neither man fully succeeded in remaking their party, and each has had to contend with fierce internal and grassroots disagreement.

The second possible approach responds more directly to the new short-termism of voters themselves, by approaching politics as a tactical, rather than a strategic, endeavour. The Labour Party has been in “policy review” mode for the entirety of the current Parliament – three years in which Labour has faced constant criticism for a lack of policy. Yet this “blank sheet of paper” approach, far from being a mistake or an oversight, is emblematic of a new way of doing politics.

Labour’s recent manoeuvrings on High Speed 2 (HS2) – the government’s flagship transport infrastructure project – are indicative of this shift. HS2 was originally Labour’s policy; it has enjoyed, to varying degrees, the support of all three major parties since its inception in 2009. But over the past few months the party has been making increasingly negative noises about what has, admittedly, become a far more expensive project than was originally envisaged.

The Triumph of Tactics

Why should a party challenge a policy that it proposed in government (and included in its last manifesto)? The answer is, quite simply, tactics. The Labour Party knows it has a credibility issue on economic management and is using negative rhetoric on the cost of HS2 to try to score some points over the government. It is a high-stakes game where, ultimately, each side must make a finely balanced judgement on how far they can push their argument. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats know that they may lose support in the short term, but that Labour are hemmed in by an inability to do the really radical thing and oppose the scheme outright.

The same can occur even within government, of course. The Help to Buy scheme, championed by George Osborne whose Treasury is now the de facto Housing Department, is specifically designed to raise prices and give homeowners a windfall before the next general election. It arguably fails in any way to address the long-term issues in the housing market – the only area of the economy where inflation is considered a good thing, despite the many problems it has led to over several decades – yet enjoys the strong support of all senior Conservative ministers.

This tactical game-playing creates headlines and interest in Westminster and titillates lobby journalists, all of whom are primed to respond to any small deviation from previous policy positions. It helps to create a self-perpetuating whirlwind of intrigue, gossip, and reactionary anger that often sucks in a certain section of voters. Arguably, though, it fails to address the key issues of the day, and only reinforces the notion that far more voters have: that politicians are “out of touch”, partisan and unable to think beyond their own party’s interests for the long-term good of society and the nation.

For businesses operating in a policy-sensitive market, this brings both challenges and opportunities. In a short-term, tactical world, the person with the ideas is king; whether it is a new product that deserves government backing, a change to legislation that would allow new entrants, or a new regulatory framework that would raise standards, politicians are more open than ever to listen to and learn from innovative companies. The flip side, though, is that support can be lost as quickly as it is earned – so political flexibility, agility and a clear strategy is more vital than ever.

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