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PETER WICKHAM: New party politics

Peter Wickham, [email protected]

PETER WICKHAM: New party politics

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THE WELL-PUBLICISED events of last week raised the question of the need for a “new political party”, which was sadly confused with a “third party”, and this distinction needs to be the first stop on the journey towards understanding why this venture (while noble) is likely to flounder.  The report of the last general election (2013) identified five political parties plus Independents in four constituencies, which would mean that we already have (had) a third, fourth and fifth party in addition to the two better known entities.

Proponents of this new entity are perhaps bemoaning the fact that none of these parties have impacted significantly on our electoral landscape and would therefore propose a party that is both new and successful.  Success could be defined in terms of securing the government or securing enough seats to gain a balance of power.

One way to ensure the success of a new entity would be to review previous attempts at forming a new party and seeking to replicate the successes, while avoiding the failures.  In Barbados the most successful new party would interestingly enough be the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) since it emerged out of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP), which is the oldest political institution still alive in Barbados. 

The DLP’s founders capitalised on a moment where the Progressive Conservative Party (PCP) and Barbados National Party (BNP) ceased to excite voters because of the shift towards a mass-based politics brought on by universal adult suffrage.  This shift in the voting base makes it difficult for parties like the PCP and the BNP, which represented more elite interests, to survive and the DLP exploited this moment to entrench itself as the alternative mass-based party.

This initial example demonstrates the existence of two key ingredients for a successful new party, which are the identification of an appropriate moment in political time, along with an inspiring leader (EW Barrow). It is interesting to note the extent to which this type of reasoning is applicable outside of the Caribbean.         

Reference is made here to the situation in South Africa which swept the African National Congress (ANC) into office in the post-apartheid era and effectively suffocated the formerly dominant National Party (NP) which supported apartheid. 

It was perhaps inevitable that the ANC would experience a schism at some stage, since this is a trend with dominant parties (like the BLP), and this came in 2009 when the ANC split and the Congress of the People (COP) emerged.  Here also the two key ingredients identified above were also present and contributed to the relative success of the new political ventures.

There are other new political parties across the region reflective of a different model and reference is made to the Unity Labour Party (ULP) in St Vincent and United Progressive Party (UPP) in Antigua, which are coalition parties that have been successful in remaining united.  There are several others, but these two present another model for a new party to consider since they have both held government, and in the case of Antigua successfully broken the ALP dominance in that country, which is historic.

Certainly a coalition party will reflect the two characteristics identified above for success, but would also have the benefit of familiarity based on the electorate’s knowledge of its parent parties. In a situation where several parties unite around a common cause (like the removal of a government) this can be a very powerful and lasting force as in the case of these two mentioned.

In the final major category is the other new party in Barbados, the National Democratic Party (NDP), which was successful enough to gain a seat in 1994.  Similar to the NDP in Barbados was the National Democratic Movement (NDM) in Jamaica, which was the party of former Prime Minister Bruce Goolding.     

Interestingly enough in both instances these parties appeared to emerge from within their parent parties (DLP and JLP) on account of an individual’s quest to offer a type of leadership that is different to that which was being offered.  In both instances there was an effort made to capture open-minded voters who were comfortable with a more liberal economics, but in both instances the parties failed to make an impact.  It could be argued that this failure was related to the lack of an appropriate political moment as the electorates were clearly more comfortable shifting their support to one of the traditional forces than experimenting with a new one.

Against this background it is therefore easy to understand this author’s pessimism about this “new third party”, which will likely become yet another new, small, transitory and uninspiring political party.

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