Given the crushing defeat of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in the 2018 general election, there appears to be some misguided impression that this long established political party with a strong tradition behind it, is dead, and can be similarly placed in the same category as pressure groups or movements. Though much that occurred during the 2018 general election suggests that this was a party in distress, it is not near death and indeed nothing can be further from the truth. We must never forget that the DLP inherited political power and therefore the right to steer the governance of the country at a time when the global economy had taken a turn for the worse. In other words, governance under these conditions would always have been difficult. But this difficulty was compounded by self-imposed problems, not least among them were the incapacity to listen, the absence of humility and some poor decision making. So the party now has to rebuild and it must rebuild in the deliberate absence of some former members who are major liabilities without a modicum of political capital.
There are many DLP staunch supporters in Barbados, some of whom were my former colleagues at the UWI, who coordinated and or contributed immensely to crafting its manifesto. Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of the party, many such stalwarts were ignored, but they continue to have much to contribute to the rebuilding process.
The problem with the DLP, and post 2013 in particular, is that it tended to focus on low salience issues which was even more marked during the 2018 election campaign. Consequently, one could be forgiven if the impression the party left was that it was out of touch with the issues of concern to the wider electorate. The party played to the most loyal of its base and failed to understand that a broader more complex “vote maximizing” strategy, attuned to a broad number of salient issues, consistent with that of the majority of voters, was warranted. The end result was that the party inflicted wounds upon itself which will see the DLP in Opposition for some time to come, barring mistakes made by this present administration.
Why it’s not a pressure group
It is true that one of the major characteristics of political parties is that they must seek power. That is why a presence in Parliament is so vital in a context of liberal democratic traditions. If, therefore, a named party fails to win seats over an extended period of time, then one must really question the label. However, one major failure at the polls does not equate to not being a genuine political party. And too, there are all kinds of parties. So Charles S. Mack makes the important point that it is not typical for long established political parties to die, unlike minor and new political parties that have short shelf lives. He therefore argues that minor parties arise constantly to give voice to new points of view and/or to new or under-represented interests. Most of these, in his view, quickly disintegrate with very few evolving as major parties. Once established however, these are likely to be very long-lived, capable of withstanding stress and defeat.
Mack acknowledges that under rare and very specific circumstances, a major political party can die and this death can be sudden or protracted over a course of several elections. Such death has important political consequences and so, of course, we need to monitor very closely the rebuilding process of the DLP which has begun with the first order of business, which is the blood-letting that former Member of Parliament Donville Inniss refers to. This is healthy! We need, of course, to determine whether Barbados has truly witnessed a process of dis-alignment and a permanent conversion or re-alignment to the BLP. I think not! Indeed, the voter turnout and the unprecedented low percentage support for the DLP are two conflicting trends, indicting tremendous tension in the body politics of the country.
This was an unusual election in unusual circumstances which hopefully will not be repeated in my lifetime. It is therefore to be hoped that the DLP continues the process of introspection and focus on all the forces and factors that led to what unfortunately is referred to as their demise as a party. But the party must tread carefully given the fact that it lacks a parliamentary presence. Have they alienated the print and non-print media to the point where the party will not be able to get traction there in their rebuilding process? The party cannot take the fight only to social media.
This rebuilding process must of course include reaching out to an electorate, which the party, especially the parliamentary wing of the party, denigrate. This remains to be seen. The DLP is not the first party in the region since universal adult suffrage that has suffered in this way. Admittedly, some have died. But not this one. In this hemisphere, among the liberal democracies we have also seen such developments. And though it is impossible to examine all of these in this space, we can make reference to one of our best friends, hemispherically speaking, Canada. On October 25, 1993, the ruling Progressive Conservatives was reduced to the smallest party in parliament and many commentators dismissed the party as dead, unable to rise.
That it took the Conservative political party five elections to regain their position is testimony to the resilience of the party and the fact that there was not a total realignment towards the liberals. But rebuilding is not an overnight process, and it is likely that the DLP will have to remain as an Opposition force for more than the two terms that is common in Barbados. At a minimum, the party will therefore be a minor political party. But this is all highly speculative for the moment.
Based on his assessment of dominant political parties in Europe and the Americas, Mack concluded that few, indeed only three such parties have died and or merged with other parties, one of which was the Liberal Political party of Britain. In his view, this occurred only in a context of a rupture between the party and its base, fuelled essentially by a disconnect between the leadership and the base brought on by what he describes as “mistaken actions or positions taken by leaders on cleavage issues, divisive social or economic questions affecting values or ideology of national concern”. Ultimately this rupture led to the conclusion that the party no longer represented the interests of the base, leading to its abandonment for a new or previously minor party. But such rupture, one can argue, does not obtain in Barbados 2018.
Further, we judge so-called parties on whether or not they routinely communicate with their followers, which both major political parties have done historically. Today, it is far easier to do so with the advent of social media and so political parties like the DLP have a social media presence which appears to be the dominant mode of communication. This will keep them relevant.
Moreover, it is expected that parties also have well established branches which the two political parties have attempted to maintain over time, notwithstanding the fact that day-to-day, routine activities of political parties have become more expensive given the seeming end of volunteerism. The current regulations on political party and elections spending grants parties with a parliamentary presence a small sum of money for the maintenance of their constituency branches, but this is extended only to seats occupied by the parties. The DLP, therefore, will not benefit from any of these funds in this dispensation. And it now behooves them to raise sufficient funds to maintain a physical constituency presence.
However, the DLP maintains tremendous support, and the party needs to use this and lessons learned (if they can), to rebuild. But they will do so in a context where the BLP is vigilant, started in a transparent manner, and has, for the moment, tremendous goodwill.
What needs to be done? Four obvious, but necessary first steps:
• The party has lost some of its best talents with the defeat on May 24, 2018 and as Mr Inniss indicates, this is a period of blood-letting which is helpful to the rebuilding process. There will be a loss of support, but ultimately, a core of persons will remain to help guide the rebuilding process. Added to this, are persons who believe that their future in party politics is not assured with an ascendant BLP and so will necessarily seek alternative avenues. The DLP will offer that prospect.
• Historically, the party has been able to count on a stable group of voters, some of whom clearly voted for the BLP or stayed home in 2018 given the voter turnout and the magnitude of the constituency support for the BLP. Without these voters, a party cannot build, so it must begin to re-court these voters. So the broadening of the existing base is critical. The party must gain a strong media presence and be relevant in order to do so effectively.
• The above will not be an easy task, as so massive a defeat sends a powerful signal of the unpopularity of the party which will lead to some initial abandonment. Power attracts, the opposite, alienates. Those who are committed to the party must be courted and their views must form a critical element of the rebuilding effort.
• The party must identify caretakers for the constituency in as expeditious a manner as possible. Quite obviously, some of the former parliamentarians will not form part of the new look party and no individual who does not think he or she has a realistic chance of representing the constituency in the next general elections would wish to commit to the process of rebuilding the constituency base. Some new blood will have to be identified and cultivated, but almost everyone will begin as new candidates given the wipe out at the polls.
Miracles are not anticipated, but the party will rise again, slowly but surely.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)