The historic clean sweep registered at the polls by the Barbados Labour Party on May 24, 2018 bears critical examination, if for no other reason than it was totally unexpected. Most observers of the Barbadian political scene felt that the Democratic Labour Party would have lost, but I would hazard a guess that not even the leader of the Bees expected to take all thirty seats.
So why this unprecedented occurrence? First, it is obvious that Barbados voted as one constituency to reject the incumbent Government, so that even DLP fortresses like St John and St Lucy fell.
The Democratic Labour Party was called upon, in Government, to navigate the turbulent waters associated with the most brutal economic crisis since the Great Depression, and to do so while keeping intact the free social services to which citizens had become accustomed. It also tried to maintain an inherited bloated public service, resisting calls from economists and the private sector to trim expenditure which required making thousands of public workers redundant. To reduce the unsustainable deficit, Cabinet took what it considered to be the more humane decision to increase taxes. As usual, the middle class bore the brunt of such taxation. But the party has traditionally drawn many of its supporters from that class which was created by His Excellency, Errol Barrow’s enlightened educational reforms of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Thus, burdening them meant alienating a significant part of the party’s base. I have no doubt that quite a few of them decided not to vote in May; hence the lowest percentage turnout of voters since adult suffrage.
Facing economic hardship is rough enough, but having to do so in the absence of regular communication from the leadership of the country is the “most unkindest cut of all”. Barbadians needed to be talked through the administering of the bitter medicine we were required to swallow. Even though former Minister Sinckler spoke to the country when introducing tough measures, Barbadians had grown so accustomed to Prime Ministers talking to them that nothing short of press conferences and addresses to the nation by Mr Freundel Stuart would have sufficed. He showed a stubborn reluctance to engage the public, preferring to speak only when he thought it necessary. Nor was it enough for Barbadians that he was a leader with impeccable integrity and one whom we could go to bed comfortably at night, knowing that he would ably defend the country’s interests; he was not “saying anything” and that was a cardinal sin. Clearly, his political misjudgement cost the party dearly.
Some of Mr Stuart’s ministers under-performed. In a Government led by a Prime Minister whose leadership style can be described as laissez-faire, and who expected Ministers to do their jobs, every one of them needed to step up to the plate. Alas, too often, ministries seemed to be on auto-pilot, even as service to the public deteriorated. If the Minister of Water Resource Management were to seriously reflect on his stewardship, he would realise that the sewage and water problems confronting segments of the population required his known competent leadership. Instead, while Barbadians and visitors alike complained, he remained silent and almost invisible. The work being boasted about on the South Coast is merely a continuation of what was begun under Dr Estwick; the difference now is the eagerness of the new minister to engage us rather than depend just on the technical staff of the BWA.
As exaggerated claims of corruption swirled, the DLP government remained quiet as though the charges, or as some may say, ‘fake news’ would blow away. The DLP has never mastered the art of public relations, and this deficiency has hurt the party and its ministers badly. People like juicy rumours, and when their standard of living is not what they expect it to be, they will believe even the most preposterous anecdotes of “tiefing”. Social media was widely and maliciously used to spread tales of ill-gotten gains allegedly accumulated by carefully targeted ministers. Absence of response, or according to the Americans, push back, was taken as confirmation of the veracity of stories. As one of our leading politicians once said, “if a lie is given a head start, it is hell to catch it”. That is what happened to the party of Errol Barrow. The elections are finished, but one is still hearing the Donald Trump chant “lock them up”.
The DLP allowed its opponents to outfox them. The BLP rallied the unions and private sector around one major cause – the NSRL – and led hundreds of marchers on the streets. In addition, government committed the fatal error of not granting public servants a salary increase for eight years. Now, those who cared to would have been able to see that the former Minister of Finance was trying to keep workers employed and asking them to help by holding strain. However, human nature being what it is, coupled with the rising cost of living, not many public employees were willing to exercise such restraint, even if it was for the common good. Mr Sinckler would have been better served giving a small increase, even if, as in the case post May 24, he took much of it back in levies. Unfortunately, people seem to prefer such political and psychological games, and for the foreseeable future, will fall for giving with one hand and taking back with the other.
Next, there was the debacle involving the retirement of Mrs Mara Thompson and the failure of the hierarchy of the party to consult with members of its St. John branch over who should replace her. Constituents of that loyal strong hold found the manner of selection of Mr George Pilgrim disrespectful and vowed not to support him. My discussions with key constituents of the parish of my birth revealed that their preference was for Senator Andre Worrell. In the circumstances, many of the electors stayed home, while others cast a protest vote for the BLP candidate who is a son of the soil.
Importantly, very few of our young people cared anything about the work of His Excellency, Errol Barrow or the efforts of the Government in the face of difficult economic times; they wanted to attend university without having to contribute to their tuition fees and to see hope of obtaining good paying jobs upon graduation. A major flaw in introducing tuition fees and pointed out by the Anglican Church’s Social Justice Commission at the time, was not exempting students who were already in university. That was akin to a breach of contract.
Then, the Dems seemed woefully unprepared for an election whose date only the former Prime Minister could determine. First, they further angered the electorate by unnecessarily, in my view, delaying the poll, and then having rung the bell, strangely seeming unready. Why did the party release its manifesto and put up posters so late? In addition, the manifesto contained elementary errors, not befitting a 63-year-old party which has made such a stellar contribution to Barbados. Moreover, their campaign was the worst the party has ever run, with an over-concentration on the leader of the Barbados Labour Party. After the first two meetings, very few people showed any interest in what DLP speakers had to say about her. Emphasis should have been on what the Government had achieved in office and on plans to tackle the national debt, high deficit and dwindling foreign reserves.
Finally, it is clear that most of the wounds suffered by the DLP were self- inflicted, but there was also evidence of sabotage and obstructionist tactics mounted against projects which could have made a difference to the country’s fortunes.
The great party of Errol Barrow, Frederick Sleepy Smith and other founding fathers better learn the many lessons of this massive electoral rejection fast. It was not so much that the Bees won the 2018 election; the Dems lost it. The country will, in time, bemoan the party’s absence in Parliament as a check on governmental power, but for now, the Dems must spend time rebuilding. Fear not, the Democratic Labour Party will rise from the ashes of defeat. How soon will depend on the decisions made with regard to leadership and organization over the next few months.
John Goddard, Retired Educator.