When voters decide in a general election to go with one political party instead of another and entrust its leadership with a mandate to manage the country’s affairs, their motivations are similar to those of shoppers choosing from a range of competing consumer products in a supermarket.
Both voters and shoppers come with a list of needs and see in their choices the best solutions for satisfying those needs. For example, a business executive known for being immaculately attired in glistening white shirts is more likely to choose a detergent brand known for making whites “their whitest white”, to satisfy his need to always look smart. Similarly, an aspiring entrepreneur with big dreams of establishing a business empire someday is more likely to vote for a party with market-friendly policies than for a competitor that believes more in state intervention. It does not matter that he may be from a working class background and welfare-type policies may have facilitated his own upward social mobility.
Any political party seriously looking today to win the support of voters, especially if its aim is to be in government, must understand voters’ needs and offer relevant solutions. Up to about 30 years ago, before globalization became a fact of contemporary life, it did not matter so much. Voting decisions back then were largely determined by a person’s ideological leaning or party loyalty, which in some families stretched back two and three generations.
However, from the mid-1990s onwards, the acceleration of globalization and the attendant rise of free market capitalism to world dominance, following the retreat of socialism, caused a paradigm shift in politics. Ironically, this historic development has escaped the attention of many political practitioners who continue to behave as if it is business as usual.
The rise of the market economy was also accompanied by that of the political market –– with political consumers who now supported parties strictly on the basis of solutions to their needs. In other words: “What are you going to do to make life better for me materially?”
The crushing defeat of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party at the hands of David Cameron’s Conservatives in last week’s British general election must be analysed in this context in order to be understood. To his credit, former prime minister Tony Blair saw the emerging paradigm shift in the mid-1990s when he was Opposition Leader and recognized that if Labour were to have a realistic chance of defeating the Conservatives after Margaret Thatcher, it had to move from left to centre. Hence, his rebranding of the Labour Party as “New Labour”.
The formula worked. Blair went on to become Labour’s most successful leader of the modern era, chalking up three consecutive general election victories. After its eventual defeat under Blair’s successor Gordon Brown by a coalition of the Conservatives and Social Democrats, Labour, under new leader Ed Milliband, moved back to the left.
“Red Ed”, the media defined Miliband, referring to his leftist orientation which he had inherited, no doubt, from a highly influential father, the late Marxist theoretician and scholar Ralph Miliband.
The ringing endorsement of Cameron’s Conservatives represented a repudiation of the old, welfare-type politics of Labour which voters saw as likely to return under a Miliband government. These socialist policies have defined Labour in its100-year history as a pro-trade union party promoting the interests of labour over capital.
Voters’ message was clear: “Go back to the drawing board and come back again with policies which meet our needs today.”
Milibrand promptly stepped down as Labour leader.
Some observers may not immediately see a connection, but British Labour’s defeat does provide some valuable political lessons for the Caribbean, especially for the many labour parties that have dominated the regional landscape since adult suffrage and regard the British Labour Party as their inspirational model. The message to them is clear: times have changed, the people’s needs have changed, and they too must change.
St Lucia’s Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony was among a few regional leaders who had the foresight back in the mid-1990s to recognize that a paradigm shift in politics was under way. Immediately after he was elected leader of the St Lucia Labour Party, he set about moving the party from its traditional leftist orientation towards the centre.
It brought a new friendliness towards business, which the late Sir John Compton’s rival United Workers Party (UWP) was known for, whilst emphasizing continued care for its traditional “malaway” (working class) base. With this enlightened approach, the SLP’s 1997-2006 tenure was characterized by significant modernization in response to real needs.
The current crisis in Caribbean politics, reflected in growing voter disenchantment because parties seem unable to come up with effective solutions to the needs of the population, stems from a general failure to pursue necessary reforms, beginning with the parties themselves. As a result, the average political party continues to see the world through the eyes of the 20th century when they were mostly established, seemingly unmindful that the world has moved into the 21st century, and a 21st century perspective is what is required.
Caribbean political parties need to go back to drawing board, rethink their positions, and redefine what they stand for in the context of today. Otherwise, they will become increasingly irrelevant and will eventually fade into oblivion. Compared with past generations, people today are not going to support a party simply because their parents and grandparents did so. They will give support only if a party’s policies and programmes are relevant to their development needs and aspirations.
It is interesting, against this backdrop, that the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP) is currently celebrating its 60th anniversary, but there has been no mention of any plans for serious reform aimed at addressing structural deficiencies which are hampering the capacity of regional parties to conceptualize and deliver exciting solutions in response to the needs of changing societies. It is obvious to anyone analysing the political narrative of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart that he is contented with the achievements of a glorious DLP past which provided meaningful solutions to pressing needs back then, but bear little relevance to reality today.
The outcome of the British election represents a wake-up call for Caribbean parties to realize that it can no longer be business as usual. Caribbean people are no longer identifying with them because they are not identifying with their needs. Parties need to reform, build capacity, and become more responsive and relevant. Otherwise, they are simply digging a grave into which the people they still claim to represent will inevitably and unceremoniously toss them. As the Brook Benton hit song says, it’s just a matter of time.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email: [email protected])