As the governing (not “ruling” mind you, an important distinction in the post-colonial world) Unity Labour Party (ULP) celebrates its 21st anniversary of its historic election victory of March 28, 2001, it would be churlish not to congratulate the party on that victory and maintaining the reins of government for an unprecedented fifth term.
In days gone by, the attainment of a 21st birthday was looked upon as a grand occasion, a sign of reaching maturity, becoming an adult. Those days you couldn’t even vote as a citizen in the Caribbean if you were under 21 years old and in many homes even if you were a working 19- or 20-year-old, your recognition as an adult depended on you reaching that magic 21 figure.
Today the 21 symbol has lost much of its magic. You can vote once the 18th birthday has been passed, and we now have university graduates who have attained their first degree before reaching the age of 21. Nevertheless 21 straight years in political office is a big thing and the ULP has every right to celebrate. I offer my humble congratulations.
The celebrations must be all the sweeter to the ULP given its narrow escapes in two of the last three elections. The irony is that having come that close in 2010 and 2015, the opposition New Democratic party (NDP) seemed to take fancy to the oppositionist role and in spite of winning the popular vote held on to that status.
The ULP is advertising its celebrations for this weekend under the banner of “Five Days for Five Terms”. A number of celebratory activities have been planned. However, they would be meaningless if among them there is not space for introspection both on the journey so far and perspectives for the future.
The ULP has a record unmatched in the history of this country, but that does not mean that the country as a whole, and our working people in particular are not still faced with formidable challenges. The Covid pandemic leaves in its wake considerable hurdles of an economic, social and political nature. It would be foolish to expect the “Comrade” and the ULP to find all the solutions or to expect the state, no matter who is in control, to provide all the answers.
On top of it we now have the after shocks from the war in Ukraine, a veritable economic and financial tsunami in itself. Countries like ours do not only suffer like consumers in developed nations, but by the very nature of our level of development, our open economies and dependence on international markets, we suffer the multiplier effects. The skyrocketing prices themselves give the message, and the worst is yet to come.
We also have a party and government visibly showing signs of wear and tear, as any good soldier would after such hard-fought battles. There is a necessary focus on mega-projects as desperately needed in the economy, but if there is one lesson that the ULP can learn from the successful days of the late Sir James Mitchell, is never to neglect the community base. Remember the “gouti tracks” derided by Labour which returned to haunt them at election time?
The ULP also needs to take note of growing perceptions that while it has “done good”, maybe it is getting tired and fresh legs may be necessary. Will these “fresh legs” come from within the team, or will it be necessary to select a new team entirely?
There are other serious considerations. For instance, the ULP came into office riding not only on a broadly popular wave but also having the basis for forging a strong link with organized civil society. That led to the historic step of legislation providing for the cementing of that broad alliance in the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC). No other Caribbean government went so far as to legislate this partnership. Some had pacts with the trade union movement, but this was much broader. What has happened to this alliance to the extent that some of the unions in the partnership are openly opposed to the government?
Then there is the obvious issue of leadership succession, a matter I raised in this column in November of last year entitled “Ralph, the ULP and Leadership Succession” (Searchlight, Nov. 12, 2021). Nothing that has occurred since then has allayed my concerns. In addition, any “new” leadership which emerges must begin, as of NOW to espouse and practise a new form of politics.
Time and time again I have repeatedly bemoaned the fact that rapid changes are taking place in the society- in economics, trade, finance, communication, social interactions, but we remain stuck in the old two-party, in-the-river, on-the-bank scenario. There is no sign in the politics of the younger generation in both parties of any new political dispensation. I will discuss the NDP in a follow-up, but the ULP is the incumbent. It has a responsibility to lead.
So, as I congratulate its achievements, I continue to urge that the necessary reflection and action be taken.
Next week: A look on the “other” side.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.