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JUST LIKE IT IS: Thoughts on poll

Peter Simmons

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IN THE TWO YEARS that I have occupied this space, trying to write last week’s column proved most difficult and halfway through I threw in the towel. The numbing implications of the confirmation by his personal physician that Prime Minister Thompson is suffering from pancreatic cancer took its toll.
I, like all Barbadians, thought poignantly “there but for the grace of God go I” as I sought refuge in John Donne’s words ’tis fate that flings the dice” and comfort in Cicero’s reassurance that “while there is life there is hope.”
The torrential outpouring of concern by Barbadians at home and abroad has been profound and passionate, the hopes heartfelt and stubbornly optimistic, the prayers pervasive and sincere. The empathy, love and best wishes for a full and speedy recovery must be of immeasurable comfort and succour to our Prime Minister and his family.
Recovering from the reality that human frailty had aborted my column, I was somewhat surprised by the headline in the Sunday Sun: Sinckler’s The Man.
The promo for the Cadres Poll in the Midweek Nation highlighted its focus as an evaluation of the Government’s performance and its handling of the Prime Minister’s illness.
But between Wednesday and Saturday the poll’s principal focus was hijacked by the leadership issue. Public opinion polls, as the accomplished pollster Peter Wickham and the Nation Corporation will readily admit, are expensive. They are therefore a once-a-year rarity and midway through the Government’s five-year term, it was most timely.
It was, therefore, confidently expected that coverage would centre primarily on performance findings rather than the headline-grabbing issue. Buttressing my surprise that Government’s performance was subsumed under the leadership issue, is the fact that the public will have no say in who becomes Prime Minister should Mr Thompson demit office precipitating a leadership change outside of an election.
Who will be Prime Minister rests exclusively with the Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP) members of the House of Assembly. It may be symptomatic of the times when the maximum leader is the central actor, that looking at post-Thompson leadership takes precedence over the Government’s performance in a number of critical areas.
With Prime Minister Thompson desperately ill in New York, though it was hardly surprising therefore that it was considered the appropriate time to canvass public opinion on who is favoured to succeed him, it could well be considered insensitive that as he fights for his life, the impression may be given that there is dancing on his sick bed.
And lest we forget, he is not only the leader of the DLP and the Prime Minister. He is also a son, husband and father. What would his nuclear family have thought when they opened the Sunday Sun? And what would he himself have thought when he saw the front page banner headline in bright red as he lay in his hospital bed Sunday evening?
There is a countervailing argument that in the prevailing political environment the person perceived by the public as next Prime Minister is relevant and eminently newsworthy. But who does it help and who does it hurt?
Seemingly trapped in the quicksands of uncertainty, inertia and recurring complaints of national stasis, the poll confirmed the perception of a glaring absence of decisive leadership.
With diplomatic deftness, pollster Wickham declared it is “clear that persons are less than excited about the performance of Stuart” who trails Sincker by 11 points. However, regardless of Mr Sinckler’s strong showing, will the parliamentary party be encouraged by the poll to rally around him or will they view him as a stalking horse?
And will the poll’s confirmation of a public perception of inadequate leadership elevate the national atmosphere of chronic uncertainty and negativity at a time demanding clear, decisive thought and action, morphing into sure-footed, dynamic leadership?
I now share my thinking on some of the poll’s hot button findings and their possible impact.
• Though the DLP continues to lead the Barbados Labour Party (BLP), the fall-off in support for the DLP from 44 per cent in the 2009 poll to 33 per cent now suggests significant slippage which should cause serious concern among the executive and supporters, especially if Mr Thompson, the runaway leader in the popularity stakes, is not on the ticket next election.
• That fact and the marginal increase in support for the BLP should be encouraging for the Opposition, plus an increase in support for both Miss Mottley and Mr Arthur who leads slightly in popularity across parties. This finding adds interest to the upcoming BLP annual conference next month.
• The rise in the “uncertain voters”– don’t knows/unsures 17%, wouldn’t vote 13%, won’t says 11% – up to 42% from 32 % in 2009 betrays growing electorate cynicism which, if not arrested, could result in a low voter turnout with the concomitant negative fall-out for our democracy and governance.
• In analysing the “don’t know” and “won’t say”, pollsters tend to isolate those categories as a predominately anti-incumbent vote giving a majority in the split to the Opposition because respondents may be over cautious or fearful for obvious reasons. When factored into the current poll, the gap between the parties is even closer.
• It is instructive that the pollster locates the increase in the “uncertain voters” as most likely “migrants” from the DLP. This, compounded by the 11 per cent fall-off of support since 2009, is indicative of a serious haemorrhage which, if not cauterised, has the potential to pitchfork the DLP back into Opposition when the election bell rings.
• Peter Simmons, a social scientist, is a former diplomat.