Whenever I try to explain contemporary politics to myself, I look to simple analogies or metaphors. I find the metaphor of the hibernating bear most useful in this respect. The bear to survive in winter when food is short, hibernates. Waking only in spring when food supplies are plentiful again. To me this explains perfectly the behaviour of the British Labour Party.
They have been beaten in serial elections and the last in 2019 suggested that they face an existential crisis. Supposedly core voters have defected to the winning party giving them an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Their dominance is such that they can pass legislation that disadvantages the opposition making it almost impossible for them to win the next election, without facing any real opposition in parliament. Labour as serially defeated party have opted for survival mode. Hibernating during the long winter of Conservative ascendancy and only coming out of hibernation in the political spring. The political spring is expected to occur in or about the time of the next election, when the increasing unpopularity of the government renders then vulnerable.
Political hibernation is a peculiar thing, it means keeping your heads down and doing nothing that would attract negative headlines.In practice this means doing just enough to remind people that you are still around, but nothing anything dramatic that might attract negative headlines or offer any hostages to the future. Operating in this mode the leadership will criticise the government, but not go as far as offering any policies of their own. Just this week the opposition criticised the government for funding social care through an increase in national insurance charges as it would impact negatively on the lowest paid, but avoided making comment to any alternative policy. A somnolent politics or as the opposition would describe a cautious and realistic politics. Whatever it might be it a curiously dull, stupefying type of politics.
Again referring to the hibernating bear, that bear through hibernation is husbanding their strength, waiting to use it again in spring, when food sources are abundant and its strength will be used most profitably. Similarly the opposition can and does argue that it must husband its strength, that is resources until the general election, when those resources can be used to greatest advantage. The election is the only contest that matters and as with the bear, over activity now will only exhaust its resources for little return. It might even threaten its survival.
While opting for survival over a more active politics might appear sound practice it has its disadvantages. When the bear awakens in spring it’s weak and must immediately find food if its to survive. Similarly the long period of somnolent or minimalist political politics leaves the opposition weakened. Going from a time ultra cautious practice to a period of hyperactivity is fraught with danger. If politics is not practised with vigour it can ossify. The young idealistic activists would have long left the party, putt off by its caution and switched allegiance to other radical parties that share their idealism. A problem particularly true of the Labour Party, whose young idealistic activists practise a left wing radical politics not shared by the leadership. Fearing these young pretenders to the throne will alienate the media and key swing voters, the party leadership seeks to discourage and repress them. Offering a collective sigh of relief when these disruptive activists leave the party in disgust at the leaderships passivity and conservatism. However these enthusiasts are the very people the party needs at elections. Being at a huge financial disadvantage, the Conservatives have huge financial resources compared to the Labour Party and they can massively outspend them at elections. What the Conservatives lack is a youthful enthusiastic membership that can knock on doors and campaign actively in the constituencies. An advantage that can offset the Conservatives financial muscle. I fear the Labour Party will be like the hibernating bear that has slept too long and found that all its rivals have already taken possession of the best food sources.
The hibernating bear metaphor leaves me pessimistic for the future. While the politics of hibernation may enable a political party to survive it does not turn it into a winner. Probably the best that can be hoped is that at the next election the party retains sufficient MPs be competitive at some future election. Although there is an alternative scenario, a harsh one that derives from the cruelty of nature. Old bears weaken through age may not be able to compete with younger bears for food and consequently die. Similarly there is a chance that the somnolent Labour Party will be displaced by a younger radical rival, as happened when the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party as the other majority party in the 1920s.
I write this as a disillusioned Labour supporter, trying to make sense of the nullity of the politics practised by the party of which I have been a lifelong supporter. Why a former party of radical idealism, has become an uninspiring party of caution? A political party that appears dead in the water. Also I must add that I think the survival politics as practised by the British Labour Party is not unique to the UK.