THE BIG PICTURE: Our politics
It is said that in the Caribbean politics is everything and everything is politics. Party politics affects almost all aspects of life in the region.
For this reason our politics must be taken seriously and anyone with an interest in Barbados cannot ignore the state of its politics. Whatever happens within either of our political parties has implications for our level of governance.
Since 1966, Barbados has been governed by one or other of the two major parties. No other has made any significant inroads into the process. When we become disillusioned with one, fearful of its incompetence and inertia or disdainful of its arrogance, we automatically turn to the other, hopeful of a reassuring alternative. A change, they say, is as good as a rest.
One source of our current dismay is what some see as the poor quality of a political class lacking in any clear sense of direction. One thinks specifically of a leadership that does not define itself and a leader who sometimes seems woefully misplaced in his office. In times of challenge, people want a leadership that exhorts and inspires, that offers a sense of direction.
To do such, leadership must above all take voice. It must speak, not just to pockets of persons at breakfast meetings and to the converted in party constituency branches, but the populace at large. Whether you agree with him or not, one thing that emerges from President Obama’s speeches is a vision, one that is consistent with the best ideals of American liberalism.
Where is our vision? To say that Barbados is not only an economy but a society is good, but what does that imply? Beyond the populist rhetoric, exactly what kind of society is envisaged? If you say Barbados is a society, why has successive governments been so complicit in its decay, compromising both society and economy. Why has the ZR culture persisted for so long? Why is the gun culture so alive and well?
Why so much indiscipline on our roads and schools? How much does it take to implement a demerit points system for traffic offenders? Is anyone attending to the looming threat from a growing cohort of young black males, unemployed and unemployable? So much of the persistent BLP vs DLP discourse is ridiculous because it is not mapped on to any meaningful ideological binaries.
It is tempting to see the contemporary political scene in Barbados as one bad pantomime with amateurish, talentless, badly-trained actors. If taken seriously one could be driven to tears. If so much wasn’t at stake, one might be induced to simply “laff it off”.
Perhaps at no time since 1966 has the Barbadian electorate seemed more disaffected and indifferent. This is not peculiar to Barbados. It is in large a response to politicians’ failure to deliver on their vaulted promises worldwide.
In his text Ruling The Void: The Hollowing Of Western Democracy, the late Peter Mair wrote: “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”
The result is a pervasive disenchantment. In the 2010 British elections some 16 million eligible to vote did not do so. The turnout was lowest among the working class and young people; only 58 per cent of the former and 44 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast their vote. Party membership in the Tory party is down from three million in the 1950s to 100 000 today, a decline of 97 per cent. In our own 2013 poll, almost 40 per cent failed to vote.
If the word on the street is anything to go buy, the next general election in Barbados could see the lowest turnout ever and increased party reliance on core partisan support. An economist writer has suggested that “history suggests that when politicians play to core voters they make bad policies”, as they move away from what he calls “the sensible centre”.
What is particularly bothersome about Barbadian politics today is that in the midst of our economic woes and social dislocations we are hearing stories of malfeasance. One hopes that the last voting day’s stories of cash for votes are not symptomatic of a growing pathology in Barbadian politics at a time when it seems so many people of all walks of life exhibit a diminished sense of integrity.
Concluding her recent Richard Dimbleby Lecture Christine Lagarde opined that “now is our turn to pave the way for the next generation”. She posed the question “Are we up to the challenge?” Given the state of Barbados, the array and severity of our difficulties, and the poverty of our responses, I remain very doubtful.
Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator; email [email protected]