Tag Archives: Conservative Party

Hibernating Bear Politics or an Explanation of the Dullness of Contemporary Political Practice

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.


This Economist’s explanation of why nothing ever appears to happen in the Westminster political scene

Politics in Britain appears to be a in state of stasis, nothing seems to happen. No longer is Westminster forum were the decisions crucial to our future well being are made, dullness and a ‘do nothing’ manner seem to prevail. In part this can be put down to Britain decline, both relative and real. Being now of relative global insignificance seems to have a negative impact, realising that are now figures of little significance, fearing that they can do little any import, they have lost the desire to do. However it might not he the loss of empire and the loss respect of the world’s leading statesman that account for this sense of ennui at Westminster. Economic theory offers an alternative explanation.

Parliament is dominated by two parties, although the rise of nationalist parties, in particular in Scotland pose a threat, the power duopoly of Conservative/Labour has not yet been seriously threatened. Duopoly is the extreme example of an oligopolist market and it is the theory of oligopoly that explains this political inertia or caution. Caution is the word that best describes the behaviour of oligopolists. They have reached this position of great power and don’t want to do anything that might threaten this power. What they realise is the power of their rivals is such that they have the potential to do great damage to them. Therefore they will do all in their power to avoid radical or aggressive actions that could provoke a damaging war with their powerful rivals. What they fear most is losing votes to their rival, much as the oligopolist fears losing market share to its rivals. What exist between oligopolists is an undeclared war or a truce of kinds. All fearing a damaging trade or political war that could inflict a death blow to their business or political party.

Oligopolists compete within certain parameters, fearing not to upset the apple cart. Businesses compete not with price but through advertising, marketing. Hoping at best to make modest inroads in a competitors sales. Similarly politics in Britain is another phoney war, conducted within strict parameters, parameters defined by the mainstream political culture. One of these parameters is responsible. Policies be responsible, not commit the partly to a great spending programme, because voters fear for their wallets. The political truism observed by all is increasing taxes is a vote loser, while reducing them is a vote winner. Also responsible politics doesn’t threaten powerful vest interests. The best example is the property lobby. Any policy that might threaten house prices is a ‘no-no’. This mainstream view also excludes as possible policies, those that while they may promise needed radical change, are too difficult to implement as they will upset power groups in society or voters.

In consequence politics is predominantly a war of words, each party claims that they possess that unique set of values that make them best suited to governing the country. Policy statements or policies spelt out in detail are anathema, as they can start a political bidding war in which each strives to out do the other. Potentially damaging to both parties as they have to make good on their policy promises. A leader can state that he wants every person in the country to have a job that guarantees a fair wage, an income that maximises their well being, but must never state how that would be achieved.

This can lead to the politics of dullness, with each party hoping to keep their share of the vote and remaining a major party. Hoping that this caution will be rewarded with those few extra votes that translate into a majority in parliament. The peculiarity of the British electoral system is that a marginally small but larger share of the vote can translate into a disproportionately larger number of parliamentary seats.

One other characteristic that political parties share with oligopolistic corporations, is a ruthlessness in preventing new entrants coming into the market. They are aware that their majority position in politics is always under threat, they are aware that the once in a lifetime event that changes the political landscape. A change which gives an outsider the opportunity to replace one of the two main parties, as occurred in the 1920s, when Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the two main parties.

This strategy is action is demonstrated by the risky strategy that the Conservative party adopted over Brexit. Its vote was threatened by the Brexit party, which one a majority at the last European election, through the support of disaffected Conservative voters. To crush this upstart the party adopted the Brexit party policy so depriving it of the political oxygen which it needed to thrive. This was a risky strategy as it meant their rivals the Labour Party could have opted for Remain, which would have put at risk their candidates in strongly Remain constituencies. Fortunately for them the Labour Party read the political runes and decided that majority opinion or the voters that mattered were for leaving the EU*. This about volte face by two predominantly Remainer parties, deprived the half of the nation wanting to stay in the EU unrepresented.

What can be said is that the British political system works to favour the two main parties in situ? No matter how outrageous their behaviours or betrayals, they need fear being voted out. British politics will continue in its outrageous but merry way refusing to countenance any change. Change that might threaten the power of the two dominant parties. Even when the crisis of climate change is becoming increasingly apparent neither of the two main parties will be willing to make the radical change necessary to help avert it. When the Conservative government reneged on its promise to install a national charging grid for electric cars, Labour remained silent. Fearing being accused of making irresponsible policy commitments that would threaten existing jobs in the motor trade, forcing on the country a change they may not want. Giving the leadership of Cop26 to any British politician is detrimental to the well being of the world. All that can be expected is lots of words, words used to say the right thing but devoid of meaning or commitment. Possibly this is a sign of Britain’s decline, a not willing to commit to anything that might threaten to diminish further Britain’s international power and reputation.