“The two real political parties…are the Winners and the Losers. The people don’t acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead…” –Kurt Vonnegut
Permit me, dear reader, to explain the caption to this essay. The substance of today’s piece concerns the currently topical issue of the notion of establishment of a “third” political party to rival the entrenched Democratic Labour Party and Barbados Labour Party -although this ordinal inexactitude may be part of the political tradition itself.
In fact, Barbados has nearly always had more than two parties contesting general elections; indeed, in the 2013 election there were no fewer than five, including the Bajan Free Party, the New Barbados Kingdom Alliance and the People’s Democratic Congress in addition to the two major parties.
I do not suspect that most Barbadians are either ignorant of or forget this actuality but, in typical Bajan-speak, they consider a third party to be one that appears to stand a realistic chance of some success at the polls, even if that success does not directly translate into an electoral triumph or even more than one seat. Hence, while the People’s Democratic Congress [PDC], for example, was as equally unsuccessful in 2013 as the National Democratic Party [NDP] was in the 1994 elections, yet the popular perception was that the NDP was a “third” party while the PDC was not. Which might also say something about our classist-prone political analysis, but so it is.
Even the current national conversation makes specific reference to a third party, even though those others that contested the 2013 elections have now constructed themselves in to an alliance called the CUP, a veritable party of parties. It might be particularly relevant to the present point that I cannot now recall the meaning of that acronym.
Hence, it is not strictly accurate to speak of a “third” party per se; but rather of a “next” party, a term that will resonate with those familiar with the Barbadian vernacular.
It is noteworthy that the most frequently quoted local political scientists have, to a man, scoffed at the chances of a next party in the upcoming electoral fray, although I believe that that sentiment is based principally on a “win-a-majority-of-the seats-or-go-home” analysis, rather than that of such a party playing any role as a coalition partner to either of the two established parties that should secure fewer seats.
And yet, there is an inescapable and necessary logic to the idea of another political party in Barbados. In the first place, it is a patent exercise of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association and, perhaps, even that of freedom of expression. Indeed, these forms of freedom find specific joint expression in the Constitution of Trinidad & Tobago, where section 4 (e) guarantees “the right to join political parties and to express political views…” There is no reason to suspect that our constitutional freedom is dissimilar, even though not identically expressed.
Second, its existence might be considered a natural consequence of the 2013 result where, as a result of the popular indecision as to which party should form the next governing administration, we nearly had the phenomenon of a hung parliament with all of its messy constitutional implications. History will record that subsequent developments have now tempered somewhat the original closeness of that result.
Third, the results of a recently published poll, for what these are worth, appear to suggest that a significant number of those surveyed are not opposed to the idea of another party, although I do not now recall that its leader, whoever he or she might be, was listed among those that the respondents would prefer to see lead the next governing administration.
Further research reveals however that the question was never directly asked; the core objective in that regard being “to identify the individual most suited to lead Barbados, the DLP and the BLP”. The current absence of an identifiable figure as leader of a next partisan grouping would of course have conduced to the absence of any positive response, substantial or all, in his or her favour.
In spite of its logical necessity, however, the next party faces some rather substantial odds, given the local partisan political environment. One of these is the entire commercialization of modern electoral competition in Barbados. This pertains not only to the enormous costs of mounting a campaign that will need to be funded by sympathetic patrons with rather deep pockets, but also the relatively recent phenomenon of some electors placing a value in money or money’s worth upon their individual franchise, a practice that might have become too entrenched to be displaced anytime soon. This, too, would place a significant financial barrier on the electoral viability of any new organization.
These monetary considerations apart, the new party will face, as would equally the established ones, the difficulty of persuading a cynical electorate of the earnestness of its manifesto representations. Given the patent absence of trust and confidence that appears currently to subsist between the political organization and the public, with almost every policy measure now evoking populist suspicions of a less than ethical intendment, it is difficult to imagine that an identical association of individuals will be any more convincing in its proposed policy objectives.
In light of the above, it may reasonably be concluded therefore that while the interests of democratic choice requires, nay, demands, the institution of a credible next party, it appears also that its formation and participation in the next general election do not guarantee it an automatic passport to the seat of government or even to the balance of power by its candidates wining a sufficient number of or, indeed any, parliamentary seats. It must be prepared for the long haul. It must have an attractive and credible message and its members must be able to capture the popular imagination as competent and caring managers of the society, corporation and brand Barbados Inc.
I am currently reading a book, “The Professor and the Madman”, written by Simon Winchester in 1998, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The following passage is most apposite to the present discussion: –
“When conceived it was a project of almost unimaginable boldness and foolhardiness, requiring great bravura. Risking great hubris. Yet there were men in Victorian England who were properly bold and foolhardy, who were more than up to the implicit risks. This was, after all, a time of great men, great vision, great achievement. Perhaps no time in modern history was more suited to the launching of a project of such grandiosity…Grave problems and intractable crises threatened more than once to wreck it. Disputations and delays surrounded it. But eventually -by which time many of those great and complicated men who first had the vision were long in their graves – the goal…was duly attained.”
The question clearly begs asking -Do we currently have such men… and women in our midst?