THE BIG INTERVIEW – Sentiment did us in
Former Prime Minister and now Leader of the Opposition Owen Arthur spoke with Associate Editor Maria Bradshaw and other members of the media last Thursday night following the defeat of his party’s candidate, Hudson Griffith, in the St John by-election.
Arthur made a statement in which he examined the manner in which the BLP conducted the campaign, and answered the criticisms over how they dealt with Democratic Labour Party candidate Mara Thompson.
He was then quizzed on a number of issues, including the rift in the party since the ouster of Mia Mottley as Opposition Leader.
When you analyse the results – the performance tonight – the 553 represents a mere nine votes more than the lowest performance of the Barbados Labour Party in this constituency. Is this a source of major disappointment for you?
Of course, we are going to feel disappointed about the result. We would have loved more people to come out and we were up against that. And I am saying that not to say that we should have done it differently.
The Labour Party would have been ill-advised during Mr Thompson’s illness to have a candidate up here canvassing, as if we presumed that he was dead or about to die.
Ms Mottley made that decision and I supported it.
The votes, yes, we are saddened by it but it is not going to break us.
When you compare [the results to] 2008, you have lost between two and ten per cent in the polling districts in terms of an electoral swing. How do you interpret that?
Yes, and there was a swing based on sentimentality, and based upon the fact, as I said, we came to this campaign with a candidate who has not canvassed a quarter of the constituency.
If you want me to extrapolate from this to the national campaign – the circumstances that we faced in St John are not going to be replicated in all of the constituencies across Barbados.
We have many of the candidates already in place working and, believe me, we are going to accelerate the process of having a full team in place as soon as possible.
To what extent do you attribute the sympathy vote as responsible for the victory here?
Well, it is massive. David Thompson had a style of personalising his approach to the way in which he represented his constituency, that anybody running now would be up against it.
He virtually made his social life part of the politics in St John. I said in my speech in the House (of Assembly)?that David Thompson, as the representative for St John, was extremely popular and he had a relationship with the people, especially young people, that in the last election we felt.
And clearly, for him to die not only young but the way in which his death had to be chronicled virtually day by day, generated a wave of sentimentality that made him a virtual legend.
When people die that young and that popular, they pass into legend in a way that is very difficult to contend with and we were up against that.
Do you think this result will necessitate a retreat of the Barbados Labour Party to analyse what has really transpired here in St John?
We will obviously evaluate the situation very carefully. As I say, we are objective about these things.
This party is 72 years old. We have known the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and every time we lose an election, we appraise it.
I?have been a candidate now in many elections and I have been a candidate in two by-elections as well.?But at least the Labour Party, in 1984, had an institutional presence in St Peter. I had the opportunity to canvass the whole constituency.
I?did not have to run against a wave of real sentimentality in the way in which we have had to run in this campaign.
We took risks in this campaign. I tell you honestly that we sat down and said, ‘How are we going to put together a campaign under these circumstances?’ We had to do certain things.
When I?wanted to put a certain position on a particular issue, people would say, ‘I wonder why he’s taking it?’
And I felt that if we didn’t take that position that the campaign was over from the very start, and you know what I?am talking about. We felt that if Mara was just allowed to be the “queen” that the campaign was over.
You take those risks in politics. It was not meant to be offensive but we felt that that was the means in which to tap more deeply into the sentimentality.
Are there any aspects of the campaign that you would have done differently?
I?do not think that it would have been appropriate for the Barbados Labour Party to have had a candidate out canvassing actively in the field while Mr Thompson was going through his illness. But it was clear to me that the Democratic Labour Party was doing its planning behind the scenes and I feel that we should have also done some planning behind the scenes.
The Barbados Labour Party took a very clear respectful distance from any partisan politics in St John over the last year out of respect for David Thompson. But
I?feel that even if we didn’t have a candidate in place, on reflection, the branch should have functioned.
They said they would win by a majority of 5 000. If elections are about expectations, [Prime Minister Freundel] Stuart would want to explain to his side why, after all of the planning, they didn’t reach the 5 000 margin.
There has been a lot of criticism about you and how you conducted the campaign and certain things you said. Do you think this was an indictment on your leadership?
I?tried to give a different speech every night. There were some issues that you just could not ignore. I had to take the leadership on them and if it was a Labour constituency, in different circumstances, I may have [had] to review that, but not in that sentimentality.
What about your attack on Mara Thompson?
I did not attack Mara. I attacked the concept of a “queen”. And I really believe that it is a matter that has to be seriously raised; that nobody could believe that you can pass down a seat through dynasties, and I raised it in that context.
I did not personalise it. I discussed the concept of a dynasty and I feel it is worthy of discussion.
What about the issue that came up about her nationality?
It was not her nationality, it was the “queen” [concept]. It really is the “queen” [concept] and I feel it is an issue that has to be addressed because you can’t have a dynasty imposed upon a country.
You just regained the leadership of the party. Do you think that any perceived split within the party might have influenced the votes?
As far as I am concerned, the most important thing where the party is concerned is that we faced an issue of the credibility of our sustained presence in St John – not issues about the party itself.
The Labour Party team appeared as a family in this campaign and the Labour Party as a party is no different than any other party. We have issues; of course, we have issues! But everybody in the Labour Party was prepared to come out and contribute to the campaign in St John.
And what I am pleased about is that nobody can say that even where people seemed to have issues with their own party that they took them out on this campaign and on this candidate by maintaining a distance from this campaign.
I heard some speeches from Mia Mottley and people like Cynthia [Forde] and others like Trevor Prescod; they came out to pull [their] weight. And I don’t think that the question as to what has happened to us recently has been an issue.
[It] was not the driving issue in this campaign. But I would let you know this – whatever issues we have in the Labour Party, we are going to work to resolve them.
I?didn’t ask to be here in this position as leader of the Labour Party, but I am. And one thing you can be sure of [is] that I will make sure that the party is held together and contributes to Barbados’ democracy befitting an institution that has been in the vineyard for 72 years.