Political rebranding in the Caribbean - Part II
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Tuesday July 19, 2011 - It is curious that upon assuming office in 1986 the DLP was in the same position that the BLP was in 1976, since it needed to re-capture the socially progressive space that was eroded by the BLP with initiatives like the Family Law Act, the Abortion Bill, an expanded School Feeding programme and the rebuilding and re-branding of the Seawell Airport into the Grantley Adams Airport. This BLP government was brought down in 1986 but the DLP government that succeeded it faltered quickly in 1987 when the death of its charismatic leader Errol Barrow threw it into a tail-spin especially since it, like the DLP, did not engage in succession planning beyond Barrow’s declaration of who was first, second and after whom “any number could play”. Upon reflection there was so much wrong with that declaration and history has proven this since Sandiford’s inability to gain the confidence of “his” team ultimately caused the government to collapse. The lesson in all this is that the confidence of one’s political peers is central to progressive governance which cannot be handed to anyone, but instead must be “earned”. Therefore Sandiford, like St. John, Cummings and even PM Stuart need to earn the confidence of their political peers relatively quickly, else the natural consequence of an “un-natural leader” will manifest itself.
“The DLP’s plight after 1994 would have been perilous even if Arthur’s BLP rendered a half-decent performance between 1994 and 1999”.--Peter Wickham
The DLP’s plight after 1994 would have been perilous even if Arthur’s BLP rendered a half-decent performance between 1994 and 1999In the context of the DLP the consequence of Sandiford’s inability to gain the confidence of his peers was the historic collapse of the government in 1994. Sadly, this was only the beginning for the DLP, since that era also represented a lost opportunity for the DLP to re-capture the socially progressive space that the BLP captured between 1976 and 1986. Instead it became pre-occupied with its own survival, ambling from one crisis to another while proverbially “on-guard” against a bitter opposition that was being led for some time by a former insider whose charisma easily outflanked Sandiford’s.
Certainly there was a great need for social policy and economic development; however a government that is proverbially looking over its shoulder cannot realistically pursue anything too “risky” and as such the 1986-94 DLP government would struggle to identify much that is socially progressive during that term. It is important here that I address the contention that the DLP and Sandiford “earned” a second term in 1991, since this is a matter of some contention. This author prefers to think that Barrow earned that term since he delivered one of the strongest majorities to Sandiford that any leader has ever had. Suffice to say that the 1986 DLP government had a 21 seat surplus and 10% more support than the BLP did nationally and this perhaps had more to do with the 1991 victory than any initiative that Sandiford pursued between 1987 and 1991.
The DLP’s plight after 1994 would have been perilous even if Arthur’s BLP rendered a half-decent performance between 1994 and 1999; however what happened was considerably worse since Arthur set about re-capturing the DLP’s psychological, if not philosophical space and was handsomely rewarded in 1999. Arthur’s initiative to capture the DLP’s space was facilitated by Hayne’s who had already dislodged some of the more progressive elements of the DLP, so Arthur simply co-opted them.
The long and short of all this is that there are now very few voters left who are old enough to remember the socially progressive DLP brand and who can articulate good reasons why they should support it. Since 1976 our population has grown and evolved and an individual who had good reasons to vote for the DLP in 1971 for the first time is now almost 60 and has been “augmented” by thousands of other voters who are under 35 and would have been born around 1976 when there was no good reason to vote for the DLP and would have voted for the first time in 1994 when there was even less reason to support the Dems.
This demographic scenario is complicated by the fact that several Dems cling to this perception that their “brand” is like “Coke” which is timeless. Hence such persons believe that the legacy of Barrow, Independence and Free Education will win votes in 2011 when people are grappling with the worst recession since the 1930s. I also once held these views; however in January of 2003 CADRES conducted a study which emerged from one of our polls entitled “Political Culture” which was published by the NATION as part of our NATION/CADRES poll report for that time period. This report makes interesting reading since it indicated (among other things) that “Party Loyalty” only accounted for about 20% national support for either party and while this grew to 30% among those 51 and older, it dropped to 17% among those under 30.
Another important finding of that study was that the long-held perception that the BLP was more the party of “Big Business” with the DLP being the party of the “Poor Man” was also not technically correct. If it was the case at one time, this was no longer the case and these perceptions now followed party support; hence the BLP was identified with both the “Poor Man” and “Business Man” more than the DLP was. The disaggregated data did; however reveal that DLP supporters were somewhat divided on the extent to which their party was a “Business Man’s” party, with the older Dems having slightly different views to the younger Dems.
This cursory analysis presented over the past two weeks demonstrates the extent to which the political brand of parties here is very much a moving target and will be influenced by contemporary political circumstances and factors such as charismatic Leadership which 15% of people then said was their main motivation to vote. Sober reflection on this should convince the non-believer of the “political pickle” facing the DLP which has been unable to re-brand in a positive way since 1971 and sadly the numbers of people who were alive and voting in 1971 is diminishing rapidly and being replaced by a younger crop for whom social development is very much associated with the “brand” of the BLP which was defined by Adams, redefined by his son and again redefined by Arthur. On the other hand the DLP’s brand was defined by Barrow between 1961 and 71 and has remained essentially untouched ever since largely because Barrow did not get the opportunity to redefine it in 1986 and neither did his first “natural” successor (Thompson) in 2008. In both instances the unfortunate circumstances robbed the DLP of the opportunity to re-brand, but these factors do not make the imperative any less compelling for the DLP especially since it does not now enjoy the luxury of a guaranteed second term like it did in 1991. (originally published in the Barbados Nation newspaper)
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter W. Wickham. Peter W. Wickham (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).