Amid preparations for what arguably is the most crucial annual conference since its formation back in 1955 in the Land’s End, St Michael home of the late Elsie Tudor-Burrowes, the once almost invincible Democratic Labour Party (DLP) finds itself today at the lowest point in its 63-year history after suffering a humiliating knock-out in the May 24 general election.
The election, convincingly won by the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) which took all 30 seats in the House of Assembly, has fundamentally reconfigured the island’s political landscape for at least the next five years. For the DLP more so than the other fledgling opposition parties, the BLP’s clean sweep, unprecedented in local electoral history, has particularly profound implications for the future.
Since Independence almost 52 years ago, Barbados has essentially been a two-party democracy with the BLP and DLP alternatively taking turns at running the island’s affairs. A few other parties did emerge during this period. However, except for the National Democratic Party (NDP) which briefly looked as if it would develop into a force to be reckoned with, they all failed eventually to break the BLP/DLP stranglehold.
The possibility of such an occurrence is no longer as far-fetched as before following the recent election. The result has left the DLP in a severely weakened and vulnerable position. Representing a dramatic fall from the once envious position it held under the late Rt Excellent Errol Barrow when it was considered as the “natural party of Government”, the DLP today finds itself practically on the same level as the other fledgling opposition parties, having been deprived of both a presence and a voice in the national parliament for the first time in its history.
It is against this backdrop that delegates to the DLP’s annual conference from the 30 constituency branches and overseas groups will gather at party headquarters in Belleville next month. A post-mortem of the party’s dismal electoral performance under the failed leadership of Freundel Stuart, will undoubtedly top the agenda. A forlorn Stuart accepted full responsibility on the night of the election and announced he was stepping down from the leadership.
However, given the vicious and unforgiving nature of DLP politics, it predictably will be “cat piss and pepper” on George Street, to use a Barbadian colloquialism. Indeed, the bacchanal has already started. Amid jostling for leadership taking place behind the scenes, news broke a week ago that the party’s executive had abruptly cancelled the long-running Astor B Watts weekly lecture series at which Donville Inniss, widely considered as most suitable candidate to succeed Stuart, was the scheduled next speaker.
It was anticipated that Inniss was going to be critical of Stuart’s leadership, as he has been many times before, and the cancellation was seen as an attempt to stop the former Commerce Minister in his tracks. Whether Stuart likes it or not, he cannot escape having to face the music. What is going to be particularly painful for him, in his present state of powerlessness, is the possible sight of many, with their symbolic daggers drawn, who used to profusely praise him when he was prime minister and wielded power.
In the rough world of DLP politics, it is simply part of the course. The inescapable truth is that the DLP’s failure to win a seat was the result of a national popular revolt against Stuart’s ineffective and uninspiring leadership. Barbadians simply had had enough. It is refreshing that in less than two months on the job after leading the BLP to victory, Prime Minister Mia Mottley has earned the plaudits of Barbadians for demonstrating once again what a real difference dynamic and effective leadership makes.
Issues like the festering south coast sewage crisis which seemed beyond Stuart’s capability to solve, have been brought close to resolution. Besides widespread dissatisfaction with Stuart’s leadership, the other major reason for the complete rejection of the DLP, which managed to win just two electoral boxes in the whole of the island, was the irrelevance of what the ousted regime was offering to address the real and pressing needs of Barbadians.
Indeed, Stuart often came across as being so detached from this reality that it appeared, through his political narrative, that somehow he expected Barbadians to continue supporting the DLP, not on the basis of their response to current problems, but the many good things it had done under Barrow 50 years ago. The political combination of Stuart and Chris Sinckler has inflicted such far-reaching damage to the DLP’s political brand that confusion now reigns in the mind of the average Barbadian as to what the DLP really stands for today.
The DLP brand was created by Barrow and Cameron Tudor during the party’s heyday in the 1960s. It defined the DLP as a caring party which had introduced free secondary and tertiary education to empower the children of the labouring masses. The DLP was also seen as the party which looked out for the interests of the “small man” in contrast with the BLP which Barbadians during Barrow’s time regarded as the party of the privileged and wealthy.
That favourable image of the DLP ceased to exist about five years ago. By introducing tuition fees for Barbadians to study on Cave Hill, after Stuart had assured that such would be a retrograde step, and the award of contracts which always seemed somehow to go to big contractors, Stuart and Sinckler’s policies destroyed the essence of the DLP brand. We live in the age of brands. If your brand is not cutting it, you are simply wasting your time. You are destined for failure which is the fate that has befallen the DLP.
Against this backdrop, the critical task for next month’s DLP annual conference is choosing new leadership which understands the urgent need to redefine and reinvent the DLP to ensure relevance in the context of changing Barbadian needs. Voters sent an unmistakably clear message to the DLP at the recent election: Purge the Augean stables! Restructure, rebrand and reposition if you are hoping to continue playing a role in Barbados’ future!
The message from the electorate is inherently ominous. The DLP has been given the option of either responding positively and addressing its shortcomings or burying its head in the sand, as it has done for the last eight years, and suffer the fatal consequences of political irrelevance. It is worth noting that in the last 30 years, quite a few once dominant political parties in the region have gone out of existence because of irrelevance. Eric Gairy’s Grenada United Labour Party is one which immediately comes to mind.
If the DLP misses the boat, it is quite possible that one of the newer parties could quietly emerge as the alternative to the BLP which, I expect, will be around for a long time if Miss Mottley keeps on the present path and, most importantly, delivers. In the reconfigured Barbadian political landscape of today, Barbadians appear more open than ever to the idea of giving serious consideration to a “third” party, once its solutions are relevant to their needs. The days of voting for a party on the basis of longstanding loyalty, as was the case with the Dems in St John, are now most likely over.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)