When tactics become strategy

The great strategist B H  Lidell Hart wrote: “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.” We can take from this many of the problems facing our party today. Following a decade of relative failure, we face an existential crisis and are in dire need of a rethink.

Many, including me, have written here in recent months about specific failings we’ve made, things we’ve overlooked or miscalculations that have occurred. But I think that much about how we operate as a party is fundamentally flawed – because we fail to understand the difference between political strategy and political tactics, more often than not conflating the two.

The military strategist Carl von Clausewitz said: “Tactics are the use of armed forces in a particular battle, while strategy is the doctrine of the use of individual battles for the purposes of war.” In other words, the strategy is about picking the right battles; tactics are about successfully winning those battles. This works in a political context too.

When you put highly skilled tacticians in charge of making strategic decisions, you naturally end up with tactical answers to strategic problems. At the national level, for too long, this has meant national campaigns simply trying to amplify or replicate local messaging – with mountains of poorly targeted direct mail or misdirecting our leader to talk about niche issues to a flawed target audience. We attempt to fight 100 by-elections during a general election, instead of developing a clear and concise national strategy that can be the boost to carry our candidates over the line, rather than being a drag. We should learn from our opponents.

I briefly left the party for 18 months between 2018 and 2019 to work on a project to set up a new movement. Looking back, it was never going to succeed, but I learnt a lot. Working alongside people who had been part of CCHQ during the Cameron years and Labour too, it was telling what their views were on the Lib Dems. A party wedded to the by-election strategy of 20 years ago and unwilling to adapt or change. They told me they didn’t, in fact, mind in the broader sense if the Lib Dems won the odd by-election because they knew it meant that at a general election we’d assume, once again, that was how to win. We have indeed failed, again and again, to understand the strategic plays the Conservatives have made.

My challenge to our new party president and whoever our new leader will be is to ensure that our internal structures and our recruitment processes don’t just see those who are experts at winning local constituencies, or in delivering plans filling all our key roles. We also need to make sure dissenting voices are not just heard but are a vital part of all levels and parts of our organisation. Arguments, disagreements and those that are willing to question assumed wisdom are a strength, not a hindrance.

The one thing on our side at the moment is time – so we should make sure we use that to pick the right battles this time around.

* Michael Kitching is a Liberal Democrat Member, previously from 2005-2018, rejoining after the 2019 General Election - @mwkitching

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32 Comments

  • Neil Fawcett 26th Feb '20 - 9:38am

    This is a very important point.

    IMHO several of our key strategic errors over many years have been due to decisions being made on a tactical (and short term) basis rather than a strategic approach.

  • I must say that I’ve never really imagined your strategy was anything other than wringing a few seats out of the system by saying anything that would help in that endeavour!

    This was shown in brutal clarity in the last six months. It seemed there was a strategy between Labour, the SNP and yourselves to hold Johnson in powerless office to grind his Brexit to pieces. Not inspiring but it could have worked.

    Instead you cut and run, willing to vote with the Tories and SNP for a one line election bill, hoping for a hundred seats.

    Oh, dear!

  • David Becket 26th Feb '20 - 10:19am

    A very important contribution, but it is not just a mix of strategy and tactics that is the problem it is our culture, which needs changing from the top down. Our new leader must be on top of this.

    Even our tactics we get wrong. A current issue is flooding, on which we are silent.

    Our spokesperson should have made a statement like the one below on our web site, replacing the utter rubbish that is on there.

    • A total review of flood defences and alleviation, in particular methods of holding water in uplands.
    • A budget set to meet the proposals from the review.
    • An immediate ban on building in Grade 3 Flood Plains
    • Work on methods of building in flood plains. E.g. stilts
    • A government operated insurance scheme for properties unable to obtain commercial insurance due to floods
    • Prioritise the Green Deal

  • Thank you. For me this is a valuable insight. The question of how to organise using this as one of the underlying ideas needs serious discussion.
    A redéfinition of ideas like targeting need to be re-examined from this perspective.

  • John Marriott 26th Feb '20 - 10:34am

    Peter Kenny is unfortunately right. “All things to all men” used to be a common criticism of the Lib Dems. His point about grinding Brexit “to pieces” is well made. What the party needs are people, who are not afraid to agree rather than disagree. It’s no good winning elections at any level if you haven’t got the faintest idea of how you consolidate when faced with compromise and all the tough decisions you need to make when you actually have real power to make things happen (pace the Coalition).

    Quite frankly, if you feel the need to keep apologising for collaborating with the Tories, or any other political party, you probably will never get to the Promised Land.

  • The problem is Michael that a lot of what you say was not remotely true of the 2019 GE and of much of 2017 and 2015 either.

    The clear National Strategy for the last three years and more has been to mainstream on being the stop Brexit Party. The “mountains of direct mail” you talk about have all been about that national message -not about what you scathingly describe as ‘niche local issues’. From June-December 2019 the national party spent more than ever before in our history on the election campaign. The bulk of that record expenditure went on national direct mail litereature (and social media advertising) pushing THE national message.

    This election was the dream of all those who subscribe to your views but it saw our already very low number of MP’s fall.

    But this experiment began as far back as 2013. Nick Clegg brought in a highly paid, world class elections expert, to run our campaigns. His mantra was to push the national messages ‘In Volume Over Time.’ Target Seat literature that did not carry the ‘correct slogan’ had match funding for that leaflet withdrawn..

    You will I am sure recall how stunningly successful this new approach has proved in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

  • –Ref the Conservatives you were working with whilst ‘out of the Lib Dems creating a new movement’ (presumably a new movement that was designed to replace the Lib Dems but which, as you say completely failed) I don’t think they gave you the whole picture either. I live in a Local Party/Constituency which forms the ‘doughnut’ centre almost entirely wrapped around by another constituency which was Labour ‘for ever’ until being narrowly won by the Conservatives in 2017 and with a big majority in 2019.

    I now represent on the Council one of the two Wards which is in our Council area but (since 2010) in NE Derbyshire constituency. As a result I saw the bulk of the local Conservative literature in 2019 and most of it was about ‘local niche issues’. Such as for example Housing developments (good in principle but not in ‘that’ location) or a particularly problematic A Road. Also of course Fracking which the Cons candidate began in 2017 by supporting -‘but it’s not right in that particular location’ – and moved on to being a 100% opponent of. I also read the Conservative Home website daily and they recently ran a series of articles on how they won and how to hold their ‘Red Wall’ seats. Embedding yourself in the local community and leading campaigns on local issues was a number one lesson they proposed.

    As for ‘stopping appointing senior people in the Party on the basis that they won a constituency election’. Our new Chief Exec comes from a background as a high flying Labour Government advisor/SPAD and then in the Charity sector. Our new President, as he says himself, was the first person appointed to the old style Campaigns Department who DID NOT have prior experience of running a winning Constituency campaign. He has previously advocated shfting campaign effort and resources into areas we ‘ought to be able to win’ due to the presence of suitable numbers of potential Core Voters. This experiment was tried on a massive scale in 2019 with the majority of our new Target Seats having low previous votes and, mostly, weak ground teams. Not one of those ‘new style’ Targets won. Most came nowhere near doing so.

    Perhaps we need less theorists and more attention to what works?

  • England is increasingly a stagnant society. The task for Liberals is to see a new way forward.

  • We need our own Cummings for the next election.

  • Michael Kitching 26th Feb '20 - 12:47pm

    I just thought I’d use my lunch break to follow up with a broad point on this. It’s very challenging to write a cogent argument within the 500 word limit prescribed by LDV!

    I agree we are very good at local tactical campaigns – and we should work to evolve those too. But we do not and have not had a national strategy for years and this is why we seemingly can’t even get in to the twenties when it comes to MPs. Only the very best local campaigners have survived and a great national leader that does not necessarily make.

    However, it seems to me we’ve tried two extremes now. From Tim Farron’s “pick a ward and win it” to Jo Swinson’s “I’m going to be prime minister.” Both times we have failed because there has not been an actual national strategy to back it up.

    There is a far more detailed debate to be had. I could have gone in to the difference between Objectives, Grand Strategy, Strategy, Operations and Tactics. I could have touched on whether actually a core vote *grand* strategy is a good thing, but whether then trying to ram it home in two years through tactical means, instead of 10 or 15 meant that it was destined to fail.

    But there is a word limit so the point of this article was to challenge, so people think about this when they are considering who should be our new leader – have they actually thought through what they want to do and can they take people with them.

  • Katharine Pindar 26th Feb '20 - 1:01pm

    Equally interesting here the thoughtful, original thinking of Michael Kitching and the quite different take from deep experience of Paul Holmes. So what DO you think should be our strategic thinking now, Paul, since the Stop Brexit strategy is gone?

  • The Elephant in the room is trust. The Lib Dems blew the Election because they elected a leader so tainted by the dreaded Coalition that voters either sat on their hands or chose other parties. The idea that the party can wait it out untill voters forget must now be rejected. The Local Elections will see further decline and the drip drip drip of irrelevance goes on. The party won’t listen to the voters and that’s clear but at least accept it..if you won’t/can’t elect a leader not tainted by the Coalition it’s game over.

  • Phil Beesley 26th Feb '20 - 2:41pm

    Paul Holmes: “Our new President, as he says himself, was the first person appointed to the old style Campaigns Department who DID NOT have prior experience of running a winning Constituency campaign. He has previously advocated shfting campaign effort and resources into areas we ‘ought to be able to win’ due to the presence of suitable numbers of potential Core Voters.”

    Mark Pack and David Howarth still have a valid point don’t they? That people who ought to vote Lib Dem based on their liberal value scale, vote for other parties? That not enough natural liberals vote Lib Dem?

    I’m not arguing that seats are won by hard work, by reminding voters that Lib Dems represent the independent but caring nature of British society. But I think that Lib Dem affiliation ought to become ‘normal’.

  • @Paul Holmes “Perhaps we need less [sic] theorists and more attention to what works?”

    I presume you’re talking here about the “Rennard Method”; in other words, get paper-delivering foot-soldiers in a ward, to win the ward, to win the council, to win the parliamentary seat.

    Does this ever happen quicker than 4-5 parliamentary cycles at a minimum? Will it ever work in more than a handful of seats? Will it continue to work in an era when paper through doors has ever less impact in the face of digital media? How do you think creatively and differently to try and make a step change? How have political start-up movements in other countries done it?

  • Laurence Cox 26th Feb '20 - 4:57pm

    Part of our problem is that people in the higher reaches of the Party got fixated on the idea that because we had 40-60 MPs during the Blair years on just over 20% of the vote, we had broken though to a new higher level of representation. The reality was that in normal elections 20% support would have brought us around 20 MPs, while the 11 Lib Dem MPs returned were close to what we would expect for a 12% vote share.

    Seen from this viewpoint, it is easy to understand Jo Swinson believing that with a good campaign we could have exceeded our best result in the 21st Century (and hence played an influential role in the next Government).

    We have to appreciate that 1997-2005 was an exceptional period in British politics, where the Tories were so unpopular that they could not buy a victory, while Labour under Blair was so business-friendly that many natural Tories were happy to vote for him (or for us in constituencies where we could beat the Tories). The defeat of Neil Hamilton in Tatton by the independent Martin Bell (ably supported by both Lib Dem and Labour campaigners) illustrated how politics could have changed had Labour not reverted to their sectarianism after Blair’s departure.

    We have to accept that until Labour understand that they can only regain power under a moderate leader (none of their three current leadership candidates can be described as moderate, although either Starmer or Nandy could tack back towards the centre once elected – the Wilson strategy) our own upside is limited because liberal Tories are afraid to vote for us if they think it will let left-wing Labour back in.

  • On the main theme, now that the foolish Revoke Brexit is a dead duck, the party has a leadership and policy vacuum crisis – and – if comments on LDV are anything to go by, what’s left is all over the place in terms of ideology and policy objectives. Is it left, right or centre ? Depends on who you spoke to last.

    I’ve supported what I used to believe was a radical and compassionate party interested in human rights and dignity for near on sixty years… but if it doesn’t get out of its marshmallow of a confuse then it’s Kaput time. There’s not been a peep about poverty, rising inequality or the stats yesterday about falling life expectancy as a consequence of austerity….. or clear thinking on climate change.

    It’s a case of “Return to your constituencies and prepare for oblivion” if the party doesn’t wake up. (Better not source that quote).

  • Phil Beesley 26th Feb '20 - 7:05pm

    TCO: “Will it continue to work in an era when paper through doors has ever less impact in the face of digital media? How do you think creatively and differently to try and make a step change?”

    Every week I get lousy flyers from the local pizza parlour etc. I have to pick it up and look at it and put it in the bag. Paper through the door might more effective if it doesn’t look like advertising junk pushed through the letter box.

    Every leaflet from every party pushed through my letter box at the General Election looked the same.

    If the local pizza parlour or political party made an effort to make something that wasn’t bland, I might buy.

  • David Evershed 26th Feb '20 - 11:27pm

    Any political party’s strategy should be based around a strong value proposition.

    – What does it stand for ?
    – What does it offer to voters ?
    – How is it different to other parties ?
    – What are the trade offs it makes?
    – Why vote for it ?

    ……..and to find a way to get these points across to the voter.

  • The quote attributed to former New York governor Mario Cuomo comes to mind ” You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”
    Bernie Sanders campaign inspires hope with campaign slogans like free college tuition and medicare for all. If elected these campaign promises can very likely only be delivered during a presidential term as a graduate tax (similar to what we have in the UK); and a single payer health system rather than Universal health coverage. The ‘medicare for all’ would provide limited coverage but most people would have to pay to supplement their insurance.
    Bernie has an unorthodox election strategy (for the US) but if elected will face the reality of compromise and reaching across the aisle required in government to actually enact legislation.
    It is a message that inspires hope that comes first, and only then the tactical ground and air campaign. Without the former, the latter can never get off the ground and the opportunity to grapple with the inevitably messy business of governing cannot be realised.

  • Joe Bourke – agree with your take with Medicare for All, but, free college is something that can be done within the Executive branch’s power, I mean, without going through Congress, because The Secretary of Education has full power to wipe off student debts at least for public/state colleges and to eliminate tuition fees. If there is a compromise, it will be free tuition for public/state universities and colleges only, not private ones. Actually, Elizabeth Warren has already written a plan to use Executive Power to deal with college tuition.

    Regarding message, you can go back to the New Deal, or even more recently, Obama for America campaign with “hope and change”, to see that.

    However, no matter how inspiring our message is, we need a charismatic leader to deliver it. Bernie (and previously Obama as well) is very charismatic and is an excellent campaigner. The same cannot be said for timid Tim Farron and boring Vince Cable.

  • @ Thomas I know and respect Tim Farron, Thomas, and there is nothing timid about him.

    If the party in general had copied his local campaigning techniques and achievements in his own constituency (which, going back to the Great Reform Act of 1832, had never had anything other than a Tory MP) it might still have forty or fifty seats.

    Opinions are cheap, actual achievement is more difficult.

  • @David Raw “@ Thomas I know and respect Tim Farron, Thomas, and there is nothing timid about him.

    If the party in general had copied his local campaigning techniques and achievements in his own constituency (which, going back to the Great Reform Act of 1832, had never had anything other than a Tory MP) it might still have forty or fifty seats.”

    No, it got his national campaigning techniques, which seemed to involve spending all our precious airtime discussing an issue that should have been put to bed two years earlier.

  • Agree with Paul Holmes, the Tories were micro managing campaigns down to street level in marginal seats with Facebook messages about “the new housing development around the corner, etc”. Even in rural Scotland (although they lost there, but in the seat I know about only narrowly).
    I received the targeted LD mailings being a target seat (albeit a last minute target), but it was mostly generalised content with little local material, aside from the candidate.
    Paddy’s target seat strategy plus highly localised social media messaging should be our way forward. It can still work, no shortcuts.
    We cannot rely on the media to help us, they are usually the opposite, it’s down to us and no one else.

  • This is a good debate even though it is not yet clear what is the best way forward on strategy and tactics. Michael’s remarks that the party heirarchy needs to rethink and take seriously what everyone says is important; the impression given so far is that this is not happening. It takes time of course. I like what Joe Bourke says at 5:18 yesterday, with his quote from Michael Meadowcroft and also about messaging. It will take a little time, but I see no indication from any of our leaders that thinking of our message for the future has even begun and that is worrying. Response to current events and Niche issues, however Liberal, are secondary compared to the big issues on the economy, inequality, security and quality of life. The economy is linked to environment and infrastructure, inequality covers health, housing and education and these show (as I have said elsewhere) the need for joined up thinking, not just the detailed policy development in silos that is a feature of our party.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 27th Feb '20 - 12:06pm

    Michael Kitching is totally on the nail. It might be an idea if the Party sets up a separate institution to look into how the Liberal Democrats can powerfully represent liberalism in the UK, Europe and the wider world. Such a group would also be a good home base for the thousands of new members who flooded in thinking this was the Party which would fill the centre ground vacuum and discovered there was no such overriding strategy to achieve this. There are only so many leaflets a millionaire high achiever will stuff through a letterbox to win a council seat. The Party needs a mechanism by which its local issue members can work side by side with the new, bigger picture members, where tactics and strategy complement instead of contradict each other.

  • We could start with our purpose that is to win seats to implement our policies. How we do that is our strategy? We do tend to want to fight every battle, partly because we think we need constant coverage in the media. A coherent strategy is a prioritisation project that could be reviewed every autumn conference. It isn’t responding to every event that the media throws up.

  • Two parties have unwittingly opened for us an opportunity and a challenge. Labour commissioned a paper from a leading thinker in the Progressive Economy Forum. This persuasive paper was published in May last year, and recommended the “Transformative” and radical adoption of the policy, well known by now for its acronym if not its content,”UBI”. Labour spurned the Report, perhaps because it was and is too sensible and radical for its ‘leader’ Jeremy Corbyn.

    The Greens did include UBI as an element in their Manifesto. Did we? If not, why not? The Red Wall crumbled and the populace fled as refugees in quest of succour [Sp? Ed.] from the Blues. Disenchantment will point them back again, towards their own Red Wall-land . In their second migration, we must be ready to intercept them as they cross the territory of the centre-left, and persuade them to settle here. One persuasive, new, and radical enticement would be that old mirage, UBI: but better explained; and renamed the National Income Dividend.

  • An excellent article.

    LDs have always relied only on tactics and never had a coherent strategy – and never will as long as the party is run as it is now.

    By definition strategy involves joined up thinking across policy areas – housing, migration, tax and skills for instance as I outlined in a comment on Alan Muhammed’s recent article (the one immediately before this one). The LDs are constitutionally unable to do this since all policy development is balkanized into separate buckets by an overly bureaucratic, cumbersome, slow and, I imagine, expensive process.

    Strategy must also involve integrating policy detail with political vision, a sense of what the electorate wants or can be persuaded of. In other words, political leadership. This also the LDs can’t do because their spokespeople are constitutionally just that – spokespeople for policies developed by others. In practice of course they have much more input into that policy development than ordinary members, but the underlying reality is that they don’t LEAD in any meaningful sense, so everything happens in more or less isolated silos.

    Politically, that leads to a cloth ear as we have seen ad nauseam.

    Compare this with how the Conservatives have worked recently. Irrespective of whether you love or loathe their policies, you have to admire how the party has responded to its members’ sense of where they want to go and over 3 years has executed a handbrake turn from pro-EU Cameron/Osborne to fiercely hostile Johnson – in the process taking along with them enough ordinary voters to give a comfortable majority.

    That’s more change, more progress (albeit in a bad way IMO), than the LDs have achieved in as many decades.

    On the bright side, I once worked for a multinational that was in just as great a mess as the LDs with epic and mounting losses. But under a new MD the way strategy was formulated and delivered was changed to a much more liberal model. It worked – and FAST! Within four years the accountants were joking they couldn’t count the money fast enough as profits exploded.

    There is a better way – but there are also strong vested interests who would rather go down with the ship than change.

  • David Raw – I know Tim is a good man. But he is boring, uncharismatic and thus cannot rally people to him. A charismatic leader is sorely needed to deliver the party’s message in the most possible inspiring manner and rally people to its cause. See Obama and Sanders.

    I have to admit that I often have a strong affinity towards charismatic orators/leaders.

  • “The Party needs a mechanism by which its local issue members can work side by side with the new, bigger picture members,”

    Well that’s a nice, supportive and not at all patronising way to put things.

  • Gordon, as you say “There is a better way – but there are also strong vested interests who would rather go down with the ship than change.”

    Unfortunately I think it is worse than that. My version is “There is a better way – but there are also strong vested interests who would rather watch the ship go down than admit they are responsible for the mess and have to change.

    Sadly they are the sort of people we are referring to are the sort of people who select election review teams and rely on others to protect them from criticism.

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