In a recent Barbados TODAY interview in which he shared his thoughts on the current state of play in domestic politics and the likely outcome of the next general election, former Prime Minister Owen Arthur suggested Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler will be hard to beat in their constituencies.
While I concur with Arthur, albeit with a few reservations, that the odds do appear to favour Sinckler in St Michael North West over his main Barbados Labour Party (BLP) challenger and other possible contenders from the new fringe parties, it is a completely different scenario in Stuart’s case in St Michael South. You see, contrary to what his dwindling band of supporters within the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) may believe, Stuart hasn’t yet achieved the status of a political heavyweight.
Indeed, if achieving such was a strategic objective, especially in terms of positioning himself for national leadership, why didn’t Stuart seize what was a golden opportunity to develop and cement a solid, almost unassailable political base in St Philip South when he served briefly as parliamentary representative from 1994 to 1999? Instead, he suffered the humiliation and indignity of rejection after just one term.
Stuart is a Philipeen, just as I am. As most Barbadians know, when it comes to loyalty and supporting their own, Philipeens are unrivalled among Barbadians. You saw it on display every time Red Plastic Bag (RPB) came to town to compete in the Pic-o-de-Crop finals. History shows Philipeens prefer Philipeens to represent them in the House of Assembly and once those chosen play by the rules, which include being always there for the people, the MP can count almost effortlessly on their continued support.
St Philip South, at heart, is a pro-DLP constituency. Indeed, the whole of St Philip for that matter. The great Reynold St Clair Weekes, Stuart’s one-time neighbour in Marchfield, turned St Philip South into a DLP stronghold by providing representation following these rules. A lowly shopkeeper, Weekes was a grassroots politician. He didn’t have the capacity, like Stuart, to deliver colourful speeches laced with quotations from Latin, Shakespeare or the great philosophers of old.
He spoke the common language of the people and always connected with them; more importantly, he understood that representative politics was not so much about occupying a seat in the House of Assembly but more about building and maintaining relationships at a personal and community level and genuinely trying to make a real difference in people’s lives. Whenever you called upon him, he would readily respond.
Weekes comfortably won three consecutive elections and remained in office until he gracefully retired in 1981 when the baton was passed to the late Harold Blackman. “Blackie” followed the Weekes model of representation, with a few deviations here and there, and he too was elected three times. Hadn’t he left the DLP to contest the 1994 general election on a National Democratic Party (NDP) ticket, when he lost, he most likely would have also remained the MP until he also chose to retire.
In came Stuart. Though he was generally not so well known, he was a Dem and the people of St Philip South, loving the Dems, gave him the benefit of the doubt. By 1999, however, they had had enough of his concept of representation and he was given his walking papers. Unprecedented for a DLP MP in St Philip South! Apparently recognizing that a second coming in St Philip South was out of the question, Stuart headed for St Michael South, where he has been MP since 2008.
I have provided this historical background to make a fundamental point which Arthur overlooked in his assessment of Stuart’s chances. And it is that if you are seriously looking to become a heavyweight in Bajan politics, especially in terms of a party leader or prime minister, your chances are substantially greater in a rural constituency where loyalty tends to run far deeper than in an urban constituency.
Sir Grantley Adams understood this; he ran in St Joseph. Errol Barrow too; he ran in St John as did David Thompson. Arthur clearly understood this as well; he chose St Peter and also Tom Adams whose stronghold was St Thomas. Another salient feature of stronghold rural constituencies is that the incumbent is more effectively able to withstand a major swing against his party at the national level, as is widely expected against the DLP in the next general election Do you see the point?
When a leader becomes a true heavyweight, he or she knows that all of his or her bases are so well covered at election time that he or she can comfortably leave their constituencies and go to campaign for other candidates elsewhere. Stuart will not have that luxury in St Michael South; if he wants to be in with a fighting chance to retain the seat, he will have to stick close to home. BLP leader Mia Mottley, on the other hand, will have that luxury in St Michael North East which she has developed into a stronghold since 1994 by earning loyalty comparable to a rural constituency. She is a heavyweight and, therefore, has a strategic advantage over Stuart.
What many people outside the DLP may not know is that in the run-up to the 2013 general election, which the Dems barely won, there were great fears that Stuart was going to lose in St Michael South. It helps to explain why the election came so late. I was part of a small group, which included Bobby Morris, that quietly went by hired bus on a reconnaissance mission through the constituency one Saturday afternoon to get a reading of the mood on the ground. We found and reported to Stuart that the feared major shift had not really occurred.
The national mood, however, has shifted sharply since 2013 which makes Stuart particularly vulnerable as a result of being seen nationally as an ineffective leader. Though a heavyweight, former Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford still lost St Michael South in 1999 to newcomer Noel Lynch in what was a major upset. He had held the seat consistently since 1971. So history, of which Stuart is a student, is largely unfavourable. Further, when Barbados shifts, it is always most pronounced in St Michael.
At any rate, with or without a swing, Stuart is not difficult to beat. His Achilles heel as a politician is not too hard to find. He mistakenly calculated he could successfully take on David Thompson in the 2005 DLP presidential election but was soundly and humiliatingly beaten. That historic election marked Thompson’s triumphant second coming and was the first strategic step towards his becoming prime minister three years later. Hadn’t Thompson unfortunately succumbed to an act of nature two years later, Stuart’s chances of becoming DLP leader and prime minister would have remained next to zero.
Given the prevailing mood in the country, the next general election is the BLP’s to win and the DLP’s to lose. All DLP candidates, therefore, enter the fray at a disadvantage. If Barbadians are really determined to free themselves of the DLP’s heavy yoke, they really have just one clear choice — the BLP. In the circumstances, a vote for any of the fringe parties essentially amounts to a vote for the DLP. There is just too much at stake, nationally and at a personal level, for Barbadians to take such a big gamble with their future.