The successful rise of a “third party” in Barbados today hinges heavily on its ability to attract the support of young people who mostly are politically disengaged and looking for something new, exciting and different, as well as to capitalize on opportunities arising from the declining fortunes of the current two dominant parties.
In this regard, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) is historically more vulnerable than the Barbados Labour Party (BLP), as its experience at the hands of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) and later the National Democratic Party (NDP), both now defunct, clearly shows. I will explain.
Beginning as a splinter of the BLP, the DLP quickly became the preferred choice of most Barbadians, largely out of gratitude to Errol Barrow for the tangible difference which his social democratic policies made in transforming our lives. Today, the once great party of Barrow and Cameron Tudor is facing a serious crisis that raises obvious questions about its future.
The crisis revolves around four critical issues: identity –– “What does the DLP now stand for?”; confidence –– “Can the DLP be trusted any more?”; relevance –– “Is the DLP offering solutions which effectively address current Barbadian needs?”; and leadership –– “Is the DLP providing the effective leadership we are accustomed to?” In each instance, most Barbadians probably would respond in the negative.
The seeds of the crisis were sown in the early 1990s in the way the DLP responded to major economic difficulties at the time. Personal hardships, resulting from a public sector pay cut, retrenchment and other austerity measures, caused many Barbadians for the first time to seriously question whether the DLP was still the party that looked out for the ordinary man
The DLP paid a dear price –– 14 tormented years in Opposition that were characterized by public disdain, bitter internal squabbling, and an exodus of promising talent to the BLP. If Owen Arthur had led the BLP to a fourth straight term in the 2008 general election, the DLP’s fate most probably would have been sealed.
So demoralized would have been the membership, I doubt very much –– and I speak as a former insider –– that it would have managed to summon the will and courage to soldier on.
Barbadians, however, reposed confidence in the late David Thompson, thus giving the DLP a chance at redemption. That opportunity, however, has been squandered in the post-David Thompson dispensation.
It stems from the Dems doing precisely what they told Barbadians they would not do –– for example, effecting job cuts as a response to the current economic crisis, and making Barbadians pay to attend the University of the West Indies.
People who are burnt twice hardly ever allow themselves to be burnt a third time. The future, therefore, does not look bright for the DLP. Any time a political party loses confidence and relevance among voters, the writing on the wall becomes quite clear. The DLP’s problem is compounded by a seeming dearth of leadership which, in Caribbean politics, always makes a decisive difference.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, whose leadership ratings are probably the lowest in Barbadian history, is in his mid-60s, the age at which Caribbean leaders have traditionally thrown in the towel. Stuart’s numbered days, therefore, raise the critical question of who really is his logical successor.
Except for Minister of Industry Donville Inniss, no one else really has captured public attention because of the DLP’s failure to invest in grooming leadership talent. Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler was once seen as a future leader, but he effectively ruled himself out some time ago through comments he made in a published interview.
At any rate, his chances since then would have considerably diminished because of his direct association with the draconian measures of recent years.
I have highlighted this extensive background to demonstrate that a vacuum is clearly developing in Barbadian politics. As nature always ensures a vacuum is filled, the situation presents a golden opportunity for a serious new political party to emerge, especially seeing that there is a public clamour for such.
A new party guided by a philosophy of politics which is relevant to Barbados at this time can benefit immensely from the declining fortunes of the DLP. It will benefit too from disenchantment with the BLP, but on a smaller scale. To the BLP’s credit, it has always demonstrated greater resilience at bouncing back from setbacks.
The BLP has traditionally shown a readiness to reinvent itself, where necessary, to respond to a changing environment. The Dems, on the other hand, tend to be more rigid and set in their ways.
When the BLP was humiliatingly voted out of Government in 1986, the main criticism was that it had become the party of big business. By 1994, it had taken on a more working-class image, with Owen Arthur as leader, and was back in Government.
As Prime Minister, Arthur went on to soar in popularity because the policies he introduced and the narrative he adopted closely mirrored the Barrow DLP –– which explains why he was so easily able to attract considerable support from so-called “Barrow Dems”.
Building on and taking Barrow’s grand vision of Barbadian development to the next level, which the current crop of Dems has terribly failed to do, is a winning formula for any new party. The political symbolism of Barrow is unmatched in Barbados.
I witnessed and experienced its captivating power at a mass level the evening his statue was unveiled in Independence Square.
It is also critically important for any serious “third party” to recognize that Barbados is in the midst of a paradigm shift driven largely by external influences related to neo-liberalism. Post-Independent Barbados developed under a paradigm put in place by Barrow, which emphasized a strong role for the state to ensure social balance. Today, the state is in retreat globally as the neo-liberal agenda promotes the paramountcy of the free market.
The DLP has clearly broken away from its social democratic moorings and caved in to the neo-liberal agenda –– which explains why Barbadians are paying university fees. As Prime Minister, Arthur recognized this global paradigm shift and skilfully steered a course that recognized a continuing critical but changing role for the state, while embracing aspects of the ideology of the market as seen, for example, in his privatization policies.
It is within this context, therefore, that a new “third party” must craft a philosophy of politics relevant to the current needs of Barbadians, based on a clear understanding of where we have come from as a people and where we collectively aspire to go.
Except for the DLP, past “third parties” failed because, generally speaking, they were not strongly grounded in an enduring philosophy, but tended to revolve around dominant personalities. They also never really developed into truly mass-based movements.
A new party today can effectively apply modern communications technology in pursuit of the last objective. Social media, for example, have proved highly effective in building up a political base and mobilizing a mass movement around various causes.
The rise of the Podemos (We Can) movement in Spain to become the country’s third major force in less than two years, against a backdrop of economic austerity, speaks volumes about the effectiveness of modern approaches to political organization. Once there is confidence and the timing is right, anything is possible in politics.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and long-standing journalist.