The New Politics: from ‘wars of position’ to ‘wars of manoeuvre’?


Are we entering a new era of British politics? All the signs are that we are. The Big Battalions of the post-WWII political wars of position have shrunk – ironically it was the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s that shattered both the historic coalitions that the Conservatives and Labour represented.

Antonio Gramsci’s famous distinction between ‘wars of position’ and ‘wars of manoeuvre’ (which ironically became fashionable on the British left in the 1980s) is finally coming into its own.

The past two decades has seen the process of collapse of the big battalions working through to its logical conclusion – the replacement of two-party political trench warfare with a much more fluid political landscape, inhabited by multiple political formations (three main national, but permanently minority, parties; nationalist parties; minor and micro parties, etc).

All the signs are that there are still a majority of unreconstructed majoritarian positional warriors in both the Labour and Conservative parties.

Many amongst the Tories have clearly swallowed the Coalition on the basis that it is merely a temporary tactic that will in due course be replaced by a majority Tory government when the time is right to go to the country again. Some of the opposition to the 55% rule and fixed-term parliaments amongst Tories is clearly motivated by this perspective.

Amongst Labour there is also a view that “it’ll be our turn next, especially when these pesky Lib Dems get their comeuppance for allying themselves with the Tories”. They expect the impact of the cuts to turn the voters against both Tories and Lib Dems, and sooner or later Labour will be back as the sole ruling party.

Both of these Tory and Labour “we’ll get a majority someday” scenario’s are highly improbable now. It is highly unlikely the electorate is ever going to give a single party unrestrained power again. Electoral reform – of voting systems and boundaries – could cement that.

The initial skirmish in the new ‘war of manoeuvre’ has clearly been won by David Cameron.  He has cleverly turned necessity into a virtue with all his talk about the new politics. It is unclear how much this is a genuine change or a well camouflaged majoritarian strategy, but its initial impact has been positive.

Ironically though Labour is in the best place to take advantage of the new situation. The Tories and Lib Dems are trapped by power, as Labour has been for so long. The stultifying bunkers of Whitehall will put constraints on manoeuvrability for both, along with the delicate Coalition arrangements.

Labour could be free to reinvent itself as a movement rather than a governing party. But to do so it needs to whole-heartedly accept the idea that they are never again going to get an opportunity to govern alone and they need to adapt to that. That includes having a radical policy on electoral reform and being open and honest about coalition politics. That includes being open to a future alliance with the Lib Dems, something that might seem rather remote at the moment but will have to happen. Being open and honest about the need for alliances to get things done is a prerequisite.

Labour also needs to reorient away from Westminster-Whitehall and work out how to build a movement at all levels of government and in civil society. It ought to even adopt some of the ideas inherent in the Big Society – which is not necessarily the opposite of Big Government. And they need to radically rethink their love affair with the Big Market – whether in financial or public services. The new movement would need to be rooted in ideas, not social groups.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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