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Mr [Owen] Arthur came up to me and said: ‘Look, I’ve been trying to call you since Friday. I want to tell you that I am not associated with that foolishness THE NATION is doing. I think it is disrespectful, and I am having nothing to do with it, and I would advise you not to have anything to do with it either.’ – Prime Minister Freundel Stuart recounting advice from the Leader of the Opposition on whether to attend the recent Talkback forum. No, dear reader, I’m not about to revisit the controversy that is still swirling around Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s decision not to accept the newspaper’s invitation to appear at the people’s forum to discuss national issues. But I was a little taken aback by what appeared to be the Prime Minister’s attempt to plant a seed to the effect that his decision may have, or could have, been influenced by those clearly unsolicited words of advice from one of his predecessors in office and a sworn personal and political enemy who so badly wants his job. Could this have been a case of Stuart holding fast to the nugget often attributed to Machiavelli that one should keep one’s friends close, but one’s enemies closer? For the record, as it turned out, neither Stuart nor Arthur attended the forum, and if we are to accept the word of the latter’s alleged cousin and whist-playing partner St Lucy MP Denis Kellman, while Stuart was missed, Arthur wasn’t! His absence, however, was more than made up for by the presence of Mia Mottley, who seized the opportunity to put a case for self and party only days before Stuart “officially” declared the general election season open, though he did not give a hard hint of the likely actual date, merely settling for “in a few months”. As strange as it sounds, there is a view gaining currency that Prime Minister Stuart has delayed the calling of the next general election until sometime after the presidential race in the United States scheduled for November 6, in the hope, I am told, that the ruling Democratic Labour Party could get some “bounce” from the re-election of President Barack Obama. The thinking seems to be that both leaders who are seeking re-election are having to do so in somewhat similar circumstances, particularly the difficult economic situation that appears resistant to the different strategies and approaches so far tried in both countries. But it seems to me that in delaying the long anticipated poll, however, Stuart has provided the Leader of the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) with an unanticipated opportunity to mobilize that party, at its upcoming 74th annual conference, well ahead of the next general election. The staging of the BLP’s annual conference comes hard on the heels of the last CADRES/NATION opinion poll, which projected Arthur and his party as the preferred Prime Minister and party to lead the country. In these circumstances, any momentum has to be with the Opposition and the opportunity to rally the enthusiasm among its rank and file would not be lost on such an experienced leader and former Prime Minister, who would have been confronted with such a choice during his long tenure. In the political arena, it is accepted that the setting of the political agenda is always easier from the Opposition benches. It is even easier when the incumbent has performed way below expectations and there is a performance card to be appraised. The task before Owen Arthur, the political leader, when he ascends the podium at next week’s Annual Conference, is to set the agenda for the future development of the Barbados economy and society. And he has to do so in a way that sets him and the BLP apart from Stuart and the Dems. On the basis of its under-performance in difficult economic times, the Government has no choice but to frame its own upcoming campaign in a negative way that would reflect on the Opposition and its flaws of the past. In addition, the notion that the BLP has nothing different to place before the electorate will have to complement such framing. While it is tempting for the Opposition, as is typical in Caribbean politics, to highlight the negatives of the Government, in the prevailing environment tremendous emphasis will be placed by the electorate on the relative capacities of the two parties to lift Barbados from its current state of inertia. Having endured a period of decline that in reality has exceeded the obvious difficulties of the early 1990s, Barbadians and the middle class, in particular, must be concerned about Barbados’ ability to bounce back despite the legendary and much touted resilience of its people. As is evident in the United States presidential election, the political focus is on the majority who make the economy work. This is because it is recognized that the middle-income groups are the drivers in the economy. In the Caribbean context, such a focus seems to suggest that political parties, born of the struggles of the working class, are betraying their base. This historical fact creates a source of discomfort for the political directorate in these countries. Unfortunately, there is a definite collision between political parties’ capacity to take care of their base and the increasing inability of the limited resources in small economies to match the expectations of that base. Unlike any previous period, the struggle is now on for political parties to pitch their tents only at the doors of the base that defined them in the past, to the neglect of a new base that has emerged in the post-Independence period. The new base has become the victim of an approach to the management of the economy that is no longer able to deliver on a path of upward social mobility, without reference to the declining resources. The balancing act which has to occur between the now competing political bases presents a challenge for even the wisest among us; but that wisdom has to be found. The challenge for the silver fox of Barbadian politics is to resist the temptation of being sucked into low-level fights that are for politicians now looking to make a name for themselves, and to step above the fray with a focus on policies and programmes designed to reposition Barbados. In this regard, the emphasis has to be on confronting the issues in whatever fora they are raised, identifying the problems and outlining solutions. Of course, politics would not be politics without a jab here and there, which is what the people seem to like, but times are difficult and the focus has to be adjusted accordingly. • Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.