I have always heard that a day is as good as a lifetime in politics. Usually, the examples given are historical accounts of twists and turns associated with politics of bygone days in Barbados. Between my last time writing to you and now though, I got a first-hand understanding of the vagaries of politics.
By early last week, rumours were surfacing that Bishop Joseph Atherley was going to cross the floor of Parliament to be the Leader of the Opposition. I dismissed the mainly social media assertions until Bishop Atherley presented himself to the Governor General last Friday to take his oath as Opposition Leader.
As would be expected, people started to immediately speculate about what the reasons could be for Bishop Atherley opting to effectively deflect from a party that he had just fought at least a two-year campaign with. Most people have seemed to accept the now national resting motive for any and all things ‘politicians’ do. Politicians are wicked people driven only by the love of money and power. Therefore, money had to be the only motive for Bishop Atherley’s action.
Frankly, with the limited knowledge of politics I have, Bishop Atherley’s decision puts him farther away from the opportunities and money that a Member of Parliament could have access to, even if that member is not directly in control of a ministry. Further from that, if Bishop Atherley wanted to be at a higher salary grade for the purpose of retirement grading, he could have stayed with his party for a longer period of time and crossed closer to the expiration of the Parliamentary term.
So for Bishop Atherley to have made this decision for money is not the most obvious thing to my mind. When Bishop Atherley says that he has made his choices for the greater good of Barbados, then I believe that he is relatively sincere, even if I further accept that his decision may have been cursorily made.
St Michael has been split into a number of sub-sections for the electoral process since 1966 when the two-member representative system was used for the last time. From 1971, St Michaels North West, West, North East, South West, South East, North Central, South Central, and South were all seats held by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP). In 1976, the Democratic Labour Party lost St Michael West. Victor Johnson won the seat for the Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
By 1981, there had been some adjustments to the boundaries which made the number of St Michael seats increase from eight to ten. St Michael West returned to the DLP with Branford Taitt becoming the member of Parliament. Taitt would turn St Michael West into a stronghold for the DLP over the next three elections. It was in the 1999 election that Atherley unseated Taitt to become the member of Parliament for St Michael West. He would retain the seat until 2008 when it returned to the DLP. In the 2018 historic election, Atherley won every box in St Michael West to beat the incumbent by 2, 376 votes.
I think that the takeaway from the size of Bishop Atherley’s win is that the people of St Michael West wanted their right to use their franchise to facilitate change. They wanted it to be known from one of the bowels of an urban DLP stronghold that there was a sense of frustration and disappointment with the DLP administration. Ironically, in his search for the deepening and protection of democracy, Bishop Atherley could be accused of having removed the voice of voters in St Michael West.
If Bishop Atherley has gone to his constituents and asked their permission to make the decision he has, it would be interesting to see if he could convert his decision into a retention of his seat and thus a reintroduction of an independent candidate as a serious contender in national elections. If Atherley has not sought further partnership from his constituents, then I think he could have made himself susceptible to them requesting a by-election for him to re-seek a mandate. Bishop should not, after all, want democracy but not want it in all its tenets and facets.
Having acknowledged that, let us assume that Atherley moved quarter in the name of protecting democracy in the House of Parliament, then he cannot do so, and in my opinion remain a member of the Barbados Labour Party. In order to access the Parliamentary stipend given to the running of the office of the Leader of the Opposition, there is a need to constitute a political party. Realistically, in order to do research and preparation for adequate use of the Opposition position in Parliament, it will be interesting to see how the Bishop builds out his office if he intends to retain his membership in the Barbados Labour Party.
In my assessment, Bishop Atherley, like the United Progressive Party (UPP), Solutions Barbados and the other third-party movements, has not quite been able to grasp that the building of a political movement does not have to take on the identical form of any structure used in the pre-independence model of the development of the political models of these islands. I remember when the UPP first came on the scene, I made the point that we did not need a political party to pressure the governance model into changing.
What we need in Barbados is the restoration of a strong civil community. We need leaders who aspire to change the political process both inside and outside the political party. What I mean by this is that in my humble opinion, people like Joseph Atherley and Lynette Eastmond can do better I think, to try to change the ills of party politics in Barbados by staying within the BLP. If a part of our current issue is that parties have little room for dissent then broadening and strengthening that is how real change can be achieved, not by creating further splinter groups that are just as defective as the two established ones. It will not be an easy process, but change is never easy.
For those outside of political parties, they have to stop seeing the political party as the only mechanism of political organization. The pressure group has proven its value time and again in various systems of governance. Pressure groups come with activism though and other discomforts that Barbadians seem quite averse to. That lack of discomfort is why most people lose faith in politics and politicians. They see plush and politics moving as twins and unless and until leaders are willing to come to sacrifice, nobody will believe in opposition or change in name alone.
Marsha Hinds is the public relations officer of the National Organization of Women.