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Lessons to be learnt from C17

David Burt and the Progressive Labour Party can take a good deal of heart from the by-election result last week.

Despite the low turnout, which the Premier rightly said was common for a by-election, the PLP romped to victory, maintaining a winning margin that was near-identical to Walton Brown's in the July 2017 General Election.

While drawing too many conclusions from a by-election is risky, this does suggest that the PLP's support has held up over the past two years.

That this should be so is a little surprising. Mr Burt and the PLP took something of a battering over the Throne Speech cancellation, but this appeared to have had little effect on the polls. More broadly, the relative failure of the financial technology initiative and the sluggishness of the economy have not harmed the PLP — at least not yet.

It may be that if the economy has not improved as promised, it has also not worsened markedly, either, and as a result voters in Pembroke Central are not worse off. And if they are, they are not yet in the mood to hold the PLP responsible, as they were in 2012.

By-elections often come down to candidates and in this case, Jason Hayward's selection, against the preference of the PLP branch committee in Constituency 17, does not seem to have done much harm, either. Mr Hayward's inability to canvass much because of health reasons did not hurt, either — in a strange way, it may have helped.

It could be argued that this lack of activity might have dampened turnout, but if it did, the malaise was shared by One Bermuda Alliance supporters, as they did not turn out in numbers, either.

So, all in all, Mr Burt can be well pleased. The PLP maintained its margin of victory, his chosen candidate was successful and the recent changes of course in PLP direction do not appear to have done any harm even if there is no real evidence that they were enthusiastically embraced.

For the OBA, there is much less to cheer about. The Opposition, under former leader Jeanne Atherden, lost a seat in Warwick South East in a by-election and that result no doubt hastened her departure and replacement by Craig Cannonier.

But that leadership change does not seem to have done very much to improve the OBA's standing. The party, too, would have expected a better performance from Dwayne Robinson, who, while not as experienced as Shadow Minister of Finance Nick Kempe, had been performing well in the Senate.

What effect the “pepper mist” video had on the by-election is hard to tell. It certainly did not seem to energise PLP supporters to turn out and would have done little to dampen enthusiasm among OBA supporters; the reality is that on the issue of the December blockade of the House of Assembly, Bermuda is divided on partisan lines between those who see the pepper-spraying as an example of OBA oppression and those who see it as stemming from an illegitimate and illegal blocking of Bermuda's elected legislature, which was then stunningly mishandled by the police.

Despite that, Mr Robinson's words were ill-chosen and if there is one lesson the OBA should take from this, it is that the PLP has a well-organised and efficient election machine, misses few of these types of “opposition research” opportunities and knows how to time their use to deadly effect.

To that end, the OBA failed to anticipate this line of attack — it must do better in the future if it wants to be successful.

Indeed, putative candidates for both parties need to be aware that nothing ever dies on the internet and statements made on social media can and will come back to haunt candidates on both sides of the aisle.

That means, at the least, that candidates need to be carefully screened and if a decision is taken to run someone with skeletons in their social-media closets that these skeletons are aired in advance of their opponents getting hold of them.

The one real hope the OBA had in this constituency was to mobilise its support, given that PLP turnout was likely to be low. Its failure to do so also suggests that its election machine remains badly underpowered and weaker than that of the PLP, which has developed a sophisticated and experienced machine.

The more pressing need for the OBA is to develop a coherent vision of where it wants to take Bermuda.

At the moment, too few voters know. Its recent stand over the Throne Speech was a rare example of a tactical victory and may suggest a more combative Opposition going forward. But that will take the party only so far without a vision.

As for the PLP, the main dangers its faces are complacency and hubris. Having brushed aside the OBA in this by-election, there will be a feeling that the party can do what it wants. This would be a mistake. The PLP has shown an unhealthy tendency to conflate party with government, and while this may be understandable, it needs to have the self-discipline to avoid this.

Perhaps more importantly, it is embarking on a potentially difficult period. While the Government received some good news with the Standard & Poor's affirmation of its credit rating, S&P has in fact been a pretty poor judge of Bermuda's economy and its prospects.

The evidence on the ground does not suggest a growing economy, and the Government's claim of a balanced budget is still a projection, not a fact. If, in fact, the budget is balanced by March 30, 2020, it will be because of increased revenues from tax squeezes, not from growth. In fact, the increases in taxes in the last two budgets may be dampening economic growth.

At the same time, the Government is embarking on two major reforms, both of which are likely to be complicated, controversial and costly. One is in health financing and the other is in education.

Despite some consultations — quite broad in health — both give the impression that the biggest decisions have already been made.

The risk is that with a huge majority and a weak opposition, the PLP will believe it has a monopoly on solutions — and with the reforms it proposes likely to take some time, it will take years to know whether they were right or not, although we have already urged caution in both cases.

A wise government would listen more carefully now, not less.

The Progressive Labour Party's Jason Hayward speaks after winning last week's by-election in Constituency 17 (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published November 27, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated November 27, 2019 at 11:02 am)

Lessons to be learnt from C17

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