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PETER WICKHAM: Electability!


PETER WICKHAM

PETER WICKHAM: Electability!

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There are two processes taking place on either side of the Atlantic which speak to the logical implications of moves towards the further democratisation of political parties in Barbados.

Both Finance Minister Chris Sinckler and Opposition Leader Mia Mottley have at different times called upon their parties to move away from the current delegates-based system and towards the direct election of their leader. Certainly the technical difference between what currently obtains in Barbados and the approach taken in the US and UK is not well understood by the average voter.

It is, therefore fortuitous that an opportunity is presented by the campaigns for leadership of the US Republican and UK Labour parties to explore this issue.

Americans have for sometime understood that the complete democratisation of the electoral system would require a democratic process for selecting the leader of both parties.  They understand that democracy is undermined if the process by which candidates are selected is not also democratic.  As such the American system of primaries forces candidates to subject themselves to a series of elections within the party and gives the voter the option of voting twice – which strengthens democracy.  These primaries are well-regulated and are subject to national legislative regulation which is entirely consistent with the fact that all Americans have an interest in these leadership contests. In the UK political parties are more formal structures; however until recent changes, it was normal for the party leader to be selected by delegates who were themselves selected by the constituency branches, therefore denying the rank and file members the opportunity to vote directly for

their leader.

On both sides of the Atlantic now, systems of direct democracy influence the selection of leaders and within the US Republican party the campaign has already commenced with Donald Trump making his bid for Republican support before the formal primary process begins.  A slightly different process has led to a vacancy in the post of leader of the British Labour Party; however, a similar campaign has commenced ahead of their formal selection process and there Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as a controversial front runner.

Ironically, Corbyn and Trump have much in common, although they both represent extreme varieties of opinion within their respective ideological spaces. Trump is “right of centre” and has been pushing an agenda which appeals to both social and economic conservatives by touching issues like immigration and taxation.  Similarly, Corbyn is appealing to the “lefties” in the UK who have felt abandoned since the reign of Tony Blair and his New Labour thinking.  Both gentlemen are polling well in their respective parties and in both instances their likely opponents have every reason to be happy about their election prospects since they fully understand that neither is electable.

The unelectability of both Corbyn and Trump is directly related to the fact that to win a national election in both countries one has to have broad support across the ideological spectrum which neither man has or is likely to gain.                             

This is one of the fascinating aspects of American politics which has now come to the UK on the heels of the democratisation of the Labour Party. Candidates who want to win their parties’ nomination logically appeal to their party supporters who are likely to be more hard-core adherents to their parties’ philosophy.  Generally persons who are either not well grounded ideologically or who are ideologically itinerant would not feel compelled to join a political party or attend party conferences so there is no reason to appeal to them in one’s bid for leadership.

The problem, however, is that after a nomination has been won, there is the proverbial rush to the centre, since an increasing number of people in developed countries are either ideologically non-aligned or are inclined toward “centrist” positions. The Corbyns and Trumps of this world would therefore struggle to gain the support of voters who find their extremist positions offensive. This is good news for their opponents who in both instances have been sufficiently exposed to government to have demonstrated  a capacity to “reach across the isle”.       In the case of Britain’s David Cameron, he formed a coalition and worked with the Lib-Dems which was a revolution of sorts for his Conservatives.  Similarly, Hiliary Clinton of the US Democrats, who is the presumptive nominee, is married to one least left-leaning Dem to have held office and should therefore have no problem convincing centrists to support her.

The fact that this issue of electability is well known and understood by party insiders in both the Labour and Republican parties might yet mean that neither Trump, nor Corbyn emerges victorious and this entire discussion becomes moot.  In the meantime, however, it is useful for us in Barbados to reflect on the implications of greater democracy within political parties.

Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and director of the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).

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