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Guest Column – Maxed out leadership?


Tennyson Johnsonis a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus specialising in analysis of regio

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Clyde Mascoll’s September 24 reflections in the WEEKEND Nation on the interpretative weaknesses of Peter Wickham’s Sunday Sun poll invite further discussion. In particular, Wickham’s claim that the leadership appeal of former Prime Minister Owen Arthur has “maxed out” immediately stood out as a case of overstretching.
Wickham’s claim demands analysis in the interest of balance and fairness.
Pollsters are best placed to appreciate that the only permanent feature of public opinion is its impermanence. This is why we need polls.
The pollster can only report what obtains at the time of his poll. He cannot attribute permanence to any of his findings.
To suggest therefore, that a target group has a fixed attitude towards an individual leader is to deny reality. Whilst a credit card can “max out”, a potential leader can be said to have maxed out only after he ceases to be active or, alternatively, after he has earned 100 per cent of potential support. 
For the pollster’s argument to hold true he would have to show that Owen Arthur’s leadership appeal cannot grow beyond its current level. Regional experience would show that it is risky to make pronouncements on the leadership potential of any politician, particularly a still active, former Prime Minister.
There are several examples of former leaders who have plummeted to the depths of popularity, have been dismissed as “failed” politicians, and who have re-emerged to lead their parties and governments with corresponding jumps in their leadership ratings. 
In St Vincent, Arnhim Eustace, a former prime minister, seems to be on an upward swing. Prime Minister David Thompson’s experience itself – an unsuccessful former leader transferring the leadership of the DLP to Mascoll – should have been a salutary warning to the pollster against the concept of a “maxed out” politician. 
Ironically, Owen Arthur’s dismissive tone towards Thompson’s leadership possibilities in the 2008 election sprang from a similar error as the pollster’s. The pollster also ignored critical variables which might have influenced his findings. One such variable was the relationship between occupation of office and the image of the office holder. 
There are several leaders in Barbados and the Caribbean who were not seen as leaders until they actually occupied office. Stephenson King in St Lucia and Patrick Todd (as minister) in Barbados are cases in point.
The fact that Owen Arthur was not a holder of leadership office at the time of the poll, and earned a second-placed national ranking should have chastened the pollster and cautioned him against absolute and over-hasty conclusions. 
The lesson for the pollster is to remain true to his task of measuring movement and change. He should be reminded that any indication of permanent and fixed attitudes is the heralding of the obsolescence of pollsters themselves.
 

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