Is there room within Barbados’ two party-dominated political system to accommodate a serious new party? Does it stand a realistic chance of breaking the stranglehold of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), or is it doomed to suffer the same fate as all previous third parties which came on the scene within the last 50 years?
These questions, which speak to the viability of a new political alternative, have been at the centre of a simmering debate over the past year or so amid clear signs of significant public disenchantment with the two mainstream parties. Partly fuelling the third party debate, public opinion polls in recent years have consistently found that a sizeable percentage of the electorate had become disengaged from the political process.
The fact that both the DLP and BLP have fallen out of favour with a significant portion of the population has obviously led to an assumption that such persons might be open to embracing a third party if one comes along. Needless to say, the debut of a new political alternative, which would widen the choices of voters, would be a welcome boost for democracy in Barbados. At the heart of democracy is the freedom to make a political choice.
The wider the choices, therefore, the better, especially when their introduction allow voters to be exposed to a wider range of perspectives on issues. Public debate on competing ideas, which is the lifeblood of democracy, is enriched through the presence of the broadest possible range of perspectives. Such can contribute to more balanced decision-making in the public interest.
Unlike a number of local political scientists who have poured cold water on the viability of a third party, we do not contemptuously dismiss the idea. To say that any new party that comes on the scene now is doomed to fail simply because others previously did, is a flimsy reason.
Every case ought to be examined separately in the context of its own set of circumstances. Because something happened 15 years ago does not mean the same outcome is guaranteed today. Conditions now may simply be more favourable.
As the saying goes, “nothing happens before its time”.
Interestingly enough, when the DLP made its political debut back in the mid-1950s, it too was a third party. Subsequent Barbadian “third parties” like the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) of the 1970s or the National Democratic Party (NDP) of the late 1980s and early 1990s most likely failed because the timing was not right, even though what they offered did to some extent capture the public’s imagination. However, promoters of any new political alternative today can draw encouragement from recent successes elsewhere.
One success story involves the spectacular rise of the two-year-old Spanish left-wing party Podemos (Spanish for “We Can”). Formed in 2014 following protests against inequality and corruption, Podemos faced the polls for the first time last December and emerged as Spain’s third largest parliamentary party, surprisingly capturing 21 per cent of the popular vote to claim 69 out of the 350 seats. Some of the issues affecting ordinary people which gave rise to Podemos, also exist in Barbados.
Last weekend, via a Sunday talk show, Barbadians heard from Mr Grenville Phillips III, the promoter of a new party going by the name Solutions Barbados. However, he may have fatally shot the idea before it is even off the ground by stating that his party will only run candidates who have experience running a business.
While a greater business input is undoubtedly needed in Government, the idea of a 100 per cent business party is unlikely to be appealing in a country with a strong organized labour background and deep underlying suspicions of businesses.
To enhance the chances of success of any new party, it must be carefully thought through, especially in terms of product demand, design and marketing. People vote for solutions to unfulfilled needs, the same reason why consumers choose certain products over others.
A new party must clearly identify such needs and design a product which must be carefully positioned, through effective branding, in the minds of voters
as the solution to those needs. The product must be backed by a powerful marketing machine.
In this consumer age, just about anything can be sold using the correct marketing strategy. A political party is no different.
That is why successful parties and politicians today invest heavily in political marketing. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Justin Trudeau are all examples of highly successful political products made possible by powerful political marketing machines. In a globalized environment, is a Barbadian political party or politician any different?