There is a general dose of skepticism whenever anything political is discussed in Barbados. I would go as far as to assert that as long as it involves politics, Barbadians expect there to be trickery and foul play afoot. This is an unfortunate reality but for anybody who understands the genes of political organizations in Barbados, it is understandable.
The issues which have become endemic in the two political organizations, the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), should not be seen as internal characteristics. They should be better understood as the deep rooted legacy of the way that political organizations were formed in Barbados and the Caribbean during the 1930s and the two subsequent decades. Said differently, the negative characteristics of political parties in Barbados are as much a part of their genes and parentage as are the positive traits. They are systemic concerns.
Seen this way, the issues are likely to show up in any political organization which is created. It is for this reason that I am not sure that a third political party which simply establishes itself using the traditional mould will be able to bring the changes Barbados requires. Eaton, in analyzing the development of political organizations in the Commonwealth Caribbean (including Barbados), notes that there are at least four elements which make up the political gene of all organizations.
The first feature is a love for the maximal leader. When the parties started in the first half of the 20th century, the masses were still largely illiterate. Many were also deeply religious and were taught to have faith in manna and messiahs. When members of the emerging educated and middle classes like Grantley Adams, Alex Bustamante and Eric Williams emerged as satellites to organize and fight for the rights of workers, they were elevated to messiah status.
In all cases, they represented the epitome of what Caribbean people wanted to be. All their human indiscretions were overlooked and they led their parties with iron fists. As much as Barbadians talk about wanting political change, I am not sure if they are ready to let go of the notion of the maximal leader. Already some of the new third parties are falling into this mould where only one or two people are coming forward as the faces and names associated with the new entities.
Barbados has outlived politics based on the whims and fancies of one maximal leader. This, to my mind, is one of the key areas that needs to change as we look to another model of politics. Initiatives like term limits and committee management are necessary to change the dependency on the maximal leader. This will also result in handling the second feature of the Caribbean political gene.
The second feature of the Caribbean political gene is that the political organizations established were never truly democratic. Since the parties were serving masses that were largely illiterate, a few members of the national council or close friends of the maximal leader did the work on behalf of members.
People in the Caribbean are no longer illiterate and in order for politics to become more effective, the party structure must be used to incorporate more members who can be of service to the nation. Additionally, members of political institutions must be willing to stop god-worship of the political party, become rational and lobby partners to bring about critical change in Barbados.
Changing this type of attitude will not be an overnight process and it is these reasons that make me question the ability of new political parties to be able to offer any real changes or forward movement.
The third feature of the political party in Barbados and the Caribbean holds them hostage to the wants of the mass base support. The political organization in Barbados depends on its mass support to be able to win elections. Mass support has learnt how to barter their votes to garner favours. These favours include access to housing, land, jobs or contracts.
This dependency on mass support for votes has caused a kind of corruption which premiums the needs of the party members above national needs. Once we decide to keep the first-past-the post system, any political party that has a serious chance of winning seats must depend on mass support. How then will a third party stop the expectations of quid pro quo of membership?
The final and perhaps most debilitating feature of Caribbean political institutions is their dependency on big business for financial sponsorship. The only real source of income that Barbadian political parties have is membership dues.
Since the membership was usually poverty stricken and needed for their votes, outstanding dues were often overlooked. This means that the political party, from its very inception, had to ensure that it stayed within the comfort zone of big businesses which provide significant amounts of money to finance election campaigns and the general work of the party.
Unless a third party can find an alternative source of campaign funding, then we will still end up with the situation where big business has a significant say in the formation, creation and administration of government policy. This will mean that their interests will always be the ones primarily met.
For the reasons which I outlined above, I am not convinced that Barbados can benefit from third parties.
We need strong lobby organizations and a restoration of the non-governmental sector. We also need to retrain Barbadians in their consumption of politics and political products.
These lobbies must focus on legislative changes. There are rules and strengthening which are critical such as transparency in campaign funding. The lobbies must ensure that they start an education campaign around the issues in politics. To my mind, this type of activity will get us closer to the changes we require.
The established member of the current political parties also have some responsibility. People have to be less willing to line up behind political parties simply out of family allegiance or tradition. They also have to be willing to agitate for their institutions to become closer to international political best practice.
Alas, we are within an election cycle and everybody is.
(Marsha Hinds Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)