Filed Under (Conservative party, Labour Party) by Paul on 28-02-2011
This week I would like to explain what a “war of position” means. Today I’m looking at politics in general and tomorrow I’ll outline how that relates to the politics of the NHS in March 2011.
The phrase a “war of position” was an important political distinction made by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He coined the phrase to describe how politics was moving from a war of position to a war of manoeuvre.
I’m sure that on a Monday morning you don’t really want to know much about what this meant in his world, but I am going to have to tell you because it explains why the distinction between position and manoeuvre mattered so much.
He had tried to organise a revolution among the working class of Turin in the aftermath of World War 1. The Italian left was very strong in the Turin factories – which they occupied. They did this because they felt that the factories equated to power. The left were in charge of a strong position – most of the factories in Italy. Their problem was that the Italian working class was a very small part of the country. The Government could ignore them and organise the politics of the rest of society around them.
Gramsci and the left lost. He tried reorganising the left – but lost again to Mussolini and Italian fascism. He spent the rest of his life in Mussolini’s jails where he had the time to learn think and write. (He rewrote Machiavelli as The Modern Prince – outlining the role of the modern political party as a replacement for the medieval prince). He recognised that modern society was full of fluidity and its politics needed to reflect that.
He believed it was wrong to believe you could win a political battle by simply holding on to things. The mid 20th century required the politics of fluidity.
The war of position, in real war terms, was typified by the First World War. This was where warfare had each side “entrenched ” and then tried to move their line forward to take the other side’s position. It was slow work. Armies built up for an offensive over a few months, laid down a barrage for hours and then advanced into the fire of those that were opposing them. And those opposing them did the same.
The war of position is what people became used to warfare being. It defined what warfare was. If you didn’t fight that way you weren’t fighting a real war. There were many problems with it, but one of the biggest was its predictability. You knew what the other side were going to do to defend their position. They knew what position you were coming from to attack their position. You knew where they were coming from to attack your position etc etc. New weapons were tried to augment the war of position, but slogging it out from known and defended positions was what war was.
In the Second World War this changed – for some of the war. The Blitzkrieg fought a “war of manoeuvre”. Enemy tanks turned up in force in unexpected places and occasionally so would paratroops. Some of the tactics of the war were about moving fast. But essentially this was still a strategic war of position – with geographical fronts. It was fought with tactics that tried to manoeuvre troops as rapidly as possible but the manoeuvres – as at Normandy – would get stuck after a little while and form into a position.
The Second World War was ultimately won by the tremendous and overwhelming industrial and military power of the US and the USSR. In the end that power overwhelmed the positions taken up by Germany and Japan.
After the Second World War the war of position virtually disappears. The attacking phase of guerrilla wars were classic wars of manoeuvre. Defending armies tried to fight a war of a position but guerrilla troops would disappear rather than fight pitched battles. Occasionally the war would be fought from positions, but mainly it was by very fast manoeuvring
The first Gulf War saw the war of position reconfirmed, and the superior power of the US and allies destroyed an Iraqi army that was also ready for a war of position. It had learnt to fight a trench war with the Iranians. In reality whilst the Iraqis may have known what was going to happen they were met with overwhelming force. Predictability with overwhelming force – force wins.
Throughout history various armies have tried to fight the last war in which they felt they were successful. In the early Second World War the British and the French armies were prepared for the war of 1914. They felt that it just wasn’t warfare as we knew it to fight the war in a different way. How could the Nazis do it that way? And similarly later in the century guerrilla war wasn’t a proper war. Why wouldn’t the opposition stand still and fight properly?
Politics too has historically been a war of position. Political parties build up support with their membership and use their membership to talk to the demography that will agree with them. Politics is you reconfirming your relationship with your people. The other side are doing the same with theirs. Each side assumes that the other is fighting the same sort of war and you slog it out.
One of the great exponents of this on the Labour side was Tony Benn. Famously he said that you knew there was no point in canvassing someone who had bought their council house and bought new door furniture for the front door. He also said, in 1983 when the Labour Party polled only just over 9 million votes, that at least they were proper socialists. (The fact the other side had more was most important for most people).
Margaret Thatcher fought a politics of position but did so with a series of bold manoeuvres. She believed that working people that had traditionally voted Labour would feel let down by the Labour Party’s failure to speak to their aspirations. So she moved into the political territory occupied by aspirant and skilled working people that had been ‘owned’ by Labour and appealed in a very different way to traditional Labour voters. This worked for some time. People felt better represented by her than the alternative and she re-positioned the politics of a few million people for 4 elections. She recognised the importance of a substantial and important manoeuvre into her opposition’s ground.
Tony Blair developed politics as a war of manoeuvre. Famously people who opposed him in the Labour Party disagreed with his approach and criticised him for talking with and winning Tory voters. How could you talk to voters from ‘the other side’? He believed that you won democratic power by persuading people who voted for the other side that you were on their side and could represent them better. During 13 years the Conservative Party began to recognise that parts of their support might crumble and move to Labour at any time because he had moved into that area.
For the Conservatives this was unpredictable.
The policy and politics of the NHS that he followed was a part of that. He believed that the crucial part of the NHS was the principle of equal access for all, free at the point of need, with a system paid for out of taxation. He expanded the application of that principle by doubling the amount of money that flowed through the NHS and was spent upholding that principle.
And he also ensured that the traditional critiques of the NHS by the right – that it lived in a world separate from the rest of society in that it did not understand price or competition – would be challenged. Crucially the manoeuvre that he was making was not simply words, it was action and policy.
Often the Tory Party and the Tory press would be left spluttering that this wasn’t fair – he was appealing to Tory people with ideas they liked. Some in the Labour Party also thought this was wrong.
From 2000 to 2007 the Conservative Party could not settle on a policy for the NHS within its principles. They were forced to try and develop a distinctive approach that could only be distinctive by undermining the principles of the NHS. This set them at odds with the majority of the population.
The Conservatives were manoeuvred into holding the wrong position on the NHS.
Gordon Brown was happier with the war of position. Famously he saw himself as a conviction politician with clear lines drawn around what he believed in, and what he would fight for. With the NHS, whilst he recognised the need for modernisation, he was happiest defending the NHS principles of the past rather than applying them in a new way for the future. He felt Labour could consolidate its position through a strong defence and co-ordination of that position.
David Cameron has recognised the importance of the war of manoeuvre for the Conservative Party. Whilst his Party had had a lot of success from 1979-1992, it had become a party that talked within and to its own position. The years of opposition saw the Party believing that it could mobilise from its position a majority to win. It couldn’t.
What David Cameron did was move the Conservatives beyond its position to a politics of manoeuvre. The pledge to keep the level of spending of the NHS and international trade was to move fast into other areas. Saying the Conservatives were the “party of the NHS” was a similar manoeuvre.
This was politics on the other foot. Now it was the Labour Party left spluttering that it wasn’t fair he was appealing to Labour people with ideas they liked. And sections of the Conservative Party disagreed with him.
Where are we now?
The Prime Minister is determined to use the next few years of the coalition, with the Liberals, to shift the Conservative Party beyond its traditional positions. This does not mean they will abandon traditional positions – as we can see from the way in which public expenditure is being cut – but it does mean that he will, every few weeks, move into areas that are not traditionally Conservative and will talk to voters that are not from within that tradition.
This will alarm and upset the traditional Tories who are at the moment the most fractious part of the coalition.
It is too early to see what Ed Miliband will do. He has talked most often about developing a “coalition of progressives” in the country. This is predicated on the belief that there is an electoral majority in the country of those who are progressive in terms of politics. The job of the Labour Party is to find these different positions and to organise them to support one party. One of the methods of doing that is to point out that David Cameron is really very right wing and the only way for progressives to stop him is to be a part of the coalition against him. This is a strategy of organising existing positions into a side.
What this means for positions on the NHS will follow tomorrow.