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Grassroots campaigning to mainstream party - is it a step too far?

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From grassroot campaigning to political party. Can it happen in Bermuda?
John Barritt, a former MP (File photograph)
Alex Scott, a former premier (File photograph)
Ryan Robinson Perinchief, founder and director of Future Leaders Bermuda (File photograph)
Dwayne Robinson, a former senator (File photograph)

Bermuda has seen the emergence of a number of new community action groups – Pride Bermuda, the Bermuda Freedom Alliance, Social Justice Bermuda to name three. But can these develop into mainstream political parties, or can their members become our future MPs and influence Government decision making? Fiona McWhirter reports.

On the one hand, former legislators agree that grass roots pressure groups can wield influence and that they offer experience for the leaders of tomorrow.

But on the other hand, others believe the Westminster parliamentary system used in Bermuda can also create challenges for community lobbyists and that, ultimately, without money and massive commitment any new group will almost certainly not become a mainstream political party.

John Barritt, who was a United Bermuda Party and One Bermuda Alliance MP for 18 years, said: “Most – but not necessarily all – grass roots organisations that have emerged in recent times tend to arise or form around single issues and once those issues are addressed the groups tend to dissipate.

“What makes them successful, I think, is that they are formed outside the traditional or existing political entities, which helps attract a wider cross section of the community and permits greater flexibility in membership and messaging.”

He added: “The challenge is to sustain these groups. It takes dedication, commitment and money, all of which present an ongoing challenge.

“One pressure group that seems to have managed this reasonably well is the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce, which grew out of Stuart Hayward’s personal crusade and dedication over many years to protect, preserve and enhance the Bermuda environment.”

Mr Barritt said that Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda was another example of what was needed “to sustain and maintain commitment”.

He explained: “It sometimes comes down to the few.

“But there is no question that they can and do exercise some influence, which depends in part on wider public support and their access to decision makers and – this is important – the decision makers’ perception of how much public support they do seem to enjoy.

“Protests and marches can be key on that front.”

Mr Barritt said the need for manpower and money meant that it was unlikely grass roots groups would become political parties.

He added: “Their attractiveness is that they can provide a platform for would-be, future politicians to ‘cut their teeth’ as it were and to obtain a public profile.”

Mr Barritt pointed out that the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Bermuda “proved that persistence and steadfastness to the cause pays off”.

He added: “No question that they kept the issue at the forefront and went a long way to influencing thought and opinion positively.”

Alex Scott, a former Progressive Labour Party premier, was part of the movement, which was kick-started in 1981 by a picket at the then Bank of Bermuda for its involvement in a South African loan.

Mr Scott said that the group’s 40th anniversary on June 26 was an opportunity for people to think about how they could make a difference in public life.

He added: “In a full-blooded democracy one would hope that individual opinions, group opinions count for something, meaning they may not be in vogue – that is, everybody agrees with them – but … a robust democracy invites folks to participate in whatever legal form that they deem appropriate to make their views known.”

Mr Scott said that the success of organisations that aimed to influence decision makers was dependent on “the responsiveness of the target group”, including governments and other institutions.

He added: “Governments respond in different ways. Some do it openly, they acknowledge it and they act on it.

“Others don’t necessarily encourage the group but they still act on it, that is, in the caucus, in their Cabinet, members of their parliamentary group.”

Dwayne Robinson, a former OBA senator, pointed out that pressure groups often provided “a bipartisan avenue for Bermudians to engage in social and political issues”.

He said: “Grass roots organisations and pressure groups play a major role in the political landscape.

“They bring awareness to community issues and pressure legislators to act on crafting solutions.”

Mr Robinson, who was among seven activists honoured by Imagine Bermuda and members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Bermuda, added: “The best way for grass roots groups to get their concerns heard is to create platforms where many people can show support for their views.

“They can then present these concerns to the government with the weight of many concerned citizens behind them.”

He said: “Some grass roots groups have already submitted proposals or platforms to the Government for consideration.

“These solutions are usually more appealing to the community because they do not have politics attached to them and are usually sourced directly from the community.”

Ryan Robinson Perinchief, the founder and director of Future Leaders Bermuda, said: “It can be quite difficult to shift the political landscape under a Westminster parliamentary system in which the 'winner takes all', because if a group's interests do not align with the government of the day, your biggest recourse is to either build strategic coalitions and lobby key persons of influence or shape the narrative to sway public opinion in your favour.

“This can be done in a number of ways but all of them require successful coordination, which can be difficult when you are a grass roots organisation.

“Ultimately, transforming the political landscape in a meaningful and sustainable way requires a fundamental rethink of the way representative democracy functions in Bermuda, so I certainly tip my hat off to activists and grass roots organisations that are out there trying to inform the public on issues of importance and rally support for progressive action.”

Mr Robinson Perinchief, a Masters in Public Policy candidate at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, added that knowledge was vital to anyone who wanted make an impact on society.

He said: “The most important things people can do are to ask questions, get educated, build community and speak up – both on the political process and in the areas in which we want to effect change.

“There are many passionate people out there in the community who have meaningful insights to contribute but because many of us either act in isolation or are unaware of the way government actually works, our energy is sometimes misdirected, which can cause us to become exhausted without even making a dent.

“My advice would be to understand how decisions are truly made so that we know how the process can be reformed.

“In addition, we should work to build relationships with others who might hold similar objectives in order to create a movement based on a firm understanding and definition of what it is we wish to change, and the most effective way of doing so.”

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Published July 07, 2021 at 7:49 am (Updated August 09, 2021 at 4:29 pm)

Grassroots campaigning to mainstream party - is it a step too far?

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