It is becoming quite clear, based on my analysis of the full meaning of a series of revealing comments from three Government ministers over the past month, that panic and despair are starting to take hold within the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP).
With less than two years to go before the next general election, I am sensing the party, at a psychological level, may have already entered defeat mode from which there is usually no immediate return. Winning always begins with the adoption of a winning mindset.
Public expressions of concern by Donville Inniss, Adriel Brathwaite and Stephen Lashley, all relating to the Government’s failure to practise effective communication, beginning with Prime Minister Freundel Stuart himself, are obvious signs of internal disquiet. It seems every man on an obviously sinking DLP ship is starting to think about breaking for himself.
I am not at all surprised. The cardinal sin of the post-David Thompson DLP has been its stubborn refusal, especially at the leadership level, to recognize the key to political success in this media-driven age of the early 21st century lies in adopting an effective approach to communication.
The persistent reluctance to meaningfully engage Barbadians on a consistent basis, which has come across sometimes as smacking of contempt, indifference and arrogance, has conveyed the impression the administration does not see governing as a democratic partnership with the people whose support and cooperation are critical to its success.
A Government detached from the people is alien to the Barbadian experience. Which explains why Barbadians feel so alienated today. A criticism of the Prime Minister made by ordinary Barbadians is that they often see him in the media comfortably interacting with tourists at Ilaro Court, but he seems to have a difficulty connecting in the same way with the people who elected his Government.
What has passed for communication under the Stuart Government has basically involved making important policy pronouncements at DLP branch meetings, having the Prime Minister as the lead story on every CBC newscast, even when it is a non-issue, and churning out occasional Press releases that often address issues of little interest to the general populace.
The policy of having the Prime Minister as the subject of the lead story on every CBC newscast was proposed during my brief tenure as director of news and current affairs. My response to this asinine directive was that it was ill-advised because the lead story should always be determined on the basis of newsworthiness. I stuck to applying this criterion and basically ignored the directive.
For the DLP to believe CBC still has overwhelming influence on public opinion, shows the extent to which it is out of touch with current reality. That was indisputably so up to about 20 years ago when listening to or watching CBC News was a must. Barbadians today, however, have significantly wider media options for news, which they exercise.
Fewer people today are tuning in to CBC. Many who do turn off their television sets and radios whenever the images and voices of DLP representatives show up, because they are so turned off by this Government! Whatever they have to say is no longer of interest.
That is the predicament facing this administration, even if it attempts at this eleventh hour to amend its ways.
Had David Thompson lived, CBC would no longer be existing in its current form. His vision for improving Government communication and public engagement, which he shared with me in mid-2009, would have seen the creation of a new state media entity.
The plan envisaged the amalgamation of the broadcast services of CBC, the public information function of the Government Information Service (GIS) and the public education role of the Audio Visual Aids Department. Thompson wanted me to play a role in its implementation. With his untimely death the following year, the plan clearly died.
From the outset, Stuart never displayed the same commitment and enthusiasm for communicating with the public. Under Thompson, quarterly news conferences were introduced because he believed in accountability. He was easily the most accessible Prime Minister, always returning calls to journalists and ordinary Barbadians within reasonable time. With his death, the Government’s media-friendly approach ended.
When Stuart was Acting Prime Minister during Thompson’s illness, and was under fire for his silence, I took it upon myself to call him up one day and went to see him at the Prime Minister’s Office where we had a discussion that lasted more than an hour.
I did so because, having played a key role in the DLP’s 2008 election win, I wanted the Government to continue to succeed.
He expressed some concerns that, in my view, had some validity, given the circumstances then. However, these concerns ceased to be valid when he became Prime Minister following Thompson’s death. He was now fully in charge and the onus fell on him to break out of the shell and set the tone for his administration, capitalizing on the tremendous public goodwill that existed at the time.
When Stuart, whom I have known from my teenage years, subsequently pulled me aside at the first post-David Thompson DLP annual conference and told me he wanted me to “stay close” to him going forward, I took it to mean he was serious about ensuring the Government’s communication machinery fired on all cylinders.
Subsequent events, especially following my return from Canada with sharper skills that could have considerably boosted the Government’s political and communication capability, led me to the conclusion I was mistaken all along. I will not go into details, but if I ever have to, I unhesitatingly will.
The backlash which the DLP is experiencing today is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Having failed to define the issues and set the agenda, the Stuart Government finds itself today generally reacting to an agenda set by others. Interestingly, the CBC News narrative, to which the administration is looking for deliverance, often portrays a Government in the negative position of being on the defensive.
At his constituency branch meeting a month ago, Adriel Brathwaite made a significant acknowledgement.
“We have allowed over the last couple of years, the Barbados Labour Party, its PR machinery, to make the ascendency in much of what they do, even in terms of much of what we do; and then we spend lots of time just playing catch-up on a simplistic basis,” he admitted.
With no effective communication strategy, and its credibility in tatters, the DLP is hoping to win the next general election by default again, as happened in 2013. Had the BLP more effectively countered the strident DLP campaign attacks on Owen Arthur, the Dems would have lost the last election.
This time around, they are desperately banking on Mia Mottley being replaced as BLP leader before the next general election to give them a chance at winning.
It is sad to say, but more of the same under a DLP administration for another five years will be a tragedy of immense and unprecedented proportions, from which there will be no smooth and easy recovery for Barbados.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and long-standing journalist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)