FIRING LINE: BLP road ahead still rocky
The resignation of former prime minister Owen Arthur from the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) marks an interesting phase in the future of the party. I believe that those who have thrown their hands in the air for joy and shouted good riddance ought perhaps to be a bit more reflective. While I agree with the analysts who suggest that Mr Arthur’s resignation would allow Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley to consolidate her leadership, I would suggest that neither she nor the public should underestimate the task ahead.
When things are not always going as planned, as they have not been for the BLP or Ms Mottley for some time, it is often handy to have a bogeyman in the background who you can blame for everything that is going wrong. When that fall guy is removed or removes himself, then the true mettle of the leader will be highlighted. With the resignation of Mr Arthur, Ms Mottley can no longer wear the cloak of the besieged leader being undermined by the very presence of the former prime minister. She will have to show that she can indeed marshal and command the respect of the parliamentary group on an ongoing basis.
The march was one event. The question is can she sustain the loyalty of a group whose members have shown themselves to be quite fickle at times. The public dissonance demonstrated by Kerrie Symmonds was more than an internal spat about a difference of opinion. Why go public in that way at such a crucial time if the intent was not to embarrass or call into question some aspect of her leadership ability?
On the other hand, it also raises questions about Ms Mottley’s leadership style; the extent to which the parliamentary groups feels that there is space for full ventilation of issues and respect for difference of opinion. Whatever the case, it does not all go away overnight with the resignation of Mr Arthur and the kumbya hand-holding at a public event. There are ongoing tensions that Ms Mottley will have to contend with. In a very real sense, perhaps, her true leadership test starts now.
This is not to suggest in any way that the influence of Mr Arthur will not stretch beyond the ink of his resignation. Mr Arthur is no common politician, if we reflect on his leadership he has always shown himself to be very strategic and purposeful in what he does. He would not have taken this position lightly and without some strategic thought. To do otherwise would suggest that he behaved like a petulant child who did not get his way.
While I would agree that his action would suggest that there has been some capitulation on his part, I would also humbly suggest that those who think his resignation is the game, set and match for Ms Mottley should think again. I do not for one second believe that Mr Arthur has given up on his ongoing campaign where Ms Mottley is concerned. How his ongoing campaign will play out is left to be seen but we ought not to underestimate his ability as an independent to create great havoc in the BLP camp.
Moreover, the BLP camp should very well analyse what they have lost in Mr Arthur and what the other side stands to gain. Mr Arthur is a formidable adversary in any parliamentary debate but particularly so economic issues. I cannot think of anyone currently in the Opposition that will command the respect and perhaps more importantly engender a bit of fear on the Government side in such debates. The Government, I believe, will have a field day with this.
Mr Clyde Mascoll is outside of the parliamentary group and as good as an economist as he is, he is not a good politician. His analysis, while good to read, fails to find resonance with the public. Ms Mottley, while having the intelligence to quickly assimilate and deliver, will need to dig way down. It will not be a natural fit for her and she could blunder dangerously as she did with the suggested water tax. The danger is not Mr Arthur joining a government committee – a silly political manoeuvre that would not gain him any supporters and just provide fodder for the DLP. The danger for the BLP is an independent Arthur speaking in Parliament against Opposition policies. He does not even have to be in favour of the ruling party; he has just has to shred Opposition arguments and, more importantly, Ms Mottley’s argument.
Importantly as well, I agree with the analysts that suggest that the march was a victory for Ms Mottley’s leadership. I would only add, however, that she should be careful not to oversell it. As I understand it, people came out to march against the solid waste tax; they did not come out to march for a water tax. There is a big difference there. The public appetite for some avenue to vent was sufficiently high that what was being suggested as an alternative by Ms Mottley was swept under the radar. She might not be so lucky next time and there should be adequate reflection on this.
What was perhaps more interesting for me was that the proposal of the water tax offered by Ms Mottley and the return to the environmental levy by Mr Arthur suggests that in a real sense there is no great difference in the analysis of the current situation by the two parties – the quibbling is over which tax is better. This to my mind is a complete misreading of where the public is at and more importantly what the public wants from an Opposition. I don’t want an Opposition who gives me the same options as the ruling party. If so, I can stay with what I have.
• Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.