Two and a half thousand years ago, the legendary Chinese general, Sun Tzu, developed the first recorded system of guerrilla warfare, involving fast-moving local infiltration and resistance tactics. Many conflicts since have proved its effectiveness, but the model is not limited to military struggles.
In our politics today, hardliners who lost recent battles over social reforms designed to bring more choice and competition into schools, health and welfare services are regrouping for a new wave of local-level disruption. The casualties will be ordinary people’s aspirations.
Ideologues on the Right, who lost the argument for more zealous reforms, now only complain from largely ignored sidelines. The hard Left, however, which vehemently opposes change to how our public services operate, is shifting its attack. Its activists are mobilising to infiltrate the very public bodies being set up to deliver the reforms they oppose, aiming to undermine them from within.
Take the policy that will give NHS patients the right to choose where to be treated for nothing by any qualified health provider, including private ones. The trade unions’ recent national conferences urged activists to subvert this by penetrating the citizen panels governing NHS bodies. A new “guidebook” has appeared listing the bodies to infiltrate, saying “the involvement of local activists can help identify at the earliest stage when there are moves to bring in private providers so that this can be challenged”.
Assisting this on the ground is the Socialist Health Association, which is beginning a nationwide programme called “Defending the NHS from the Inside”, driving forward a plan to “get people elected to governing bodies”. A series of “NHS for Beginners” classes to train local people was launched for the group by an MP in Parliament just before Christmas.
In schools reform, too, the argument about raising standards through teaching excellence has been won – as has the debate over new free schools to expand local choice for parents denied access to a good school. But while Michael Gove impressively chalks up the wins in Westminster debates, localised strikes and threats of walkouts by unions are being organised for as little as schools wanting more rigorous staff appraisals. These hit schools in the run-up to Christmas in areas such as Sheffield, South Shields and High Wycombe. Letters are also being distributed to local parents talking non-specifically of the “threats” and “risks” of the new academies and free schools emerging, which have “profound implications for children”. The latest propaganda tells parents, with no explanation or evidence, that free schools and academies aim “to turn state education into a free-market free-for-all and to provide opportunities for the private sector to make a profit”.
The real casualties of all this are not Government policies, but the ordinary families who strive for better chances and a better quality of life. And the politicians meant to stand up for them are blissfully unaware of it.
So how should moderates in our mainstream political parties respond? The first step is to acknowledge their total failure to connect with ordinary working people. The Government doesn’t seem to realise it, but its partial move to give people free choices over schools, health and other services could be one of its most transformative legacies if properly followed through. Choice turns supplicants of state services into empowered consumers who can ditch poor providers and switch to the best, and competition between services in turn drives up quality. It is akin to Margaret Thatcher’s empowerment of the working class to own council houses and shares in public utilities. The narratives of the “big society” and Labour’s “one nation” alternative amount to little more than romanticist jargon in comparison.
There are, of course, practical measures needed. My own research shows large numbers of people have no idea how to assess the quality of local GPs, schools and other services, so more choice in that context achieves little. While some information is available for schools, the medical establishment refuses to release similar easily accessible detail about NHS services because of the huge variation in quality it would expose. The situation where a parent cannot find out which GP practice is best at managing a child’s asthma is exactly what is sustaining the ability of ideologues to argue that public services must remain under monopoly state control.
The Government could perhaps try to limit the abuse of citizen panels to undermine choice through tighter controls – but the attack on freedom would only shift elsewhere. Much more important is for politicians to understand and start explicitly standing up against vested interests.
Which brings us back to the analogy of guerrilla warfare. The most effective answer to dealing with that was developed by a free-thinking British Army officer, Robert Thompson, in the Sixties. Unlike the rest of the top brass of his time, Thompson understood that, ultimately, the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people was far more important than endlessly chasing after the guerrillas themselves or appealing to intellectual elites. The lesson applies more than ever in politics today.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website