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Leadership campaign should be held in the open

Open the doors: the Progressive Labour Party’s leadership vote is of concern to the whole island and is not an “internal matter” restricted to Alaska Hall (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Three weeks ago, Britain got a new prime minister after Liz Truss was elected leader of the Conservative Party.

Ms Truss became the leader of the British government not as the result of a General Election, or even because a majority of elected Conservative MPs supported her, but because some 80,000 members of the Conservative Party opted for her over Rishi Sunak, who got 60,000 votes.

There are more than 40 million registered voters in Britain, so Ms Truss succeeded Boris Johnson and became prime minister thanks to 0.2 per cent of the electorate.

Arguably, this does not matter as political parties have a right to order their own affairs, although there is an argument that Ms Truss should seek a mandate from the general electorate.

Ms Truss did not do that. Instead, she and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, with no mandate, announced a “mini-budget” which has been roundly criticised and has crashed the pound and the investment markets.

In some ways, this is not relevant to Bermuda, although it is very good news for anyone who has children studying in Britain or imports British goods.

But the fact a tiny percentage of the electorate chose the British prime minister who then, with no mandate, embarked on a radically different course from her predecessors vividly demonstrates the flaws in this method of choosing parliamentary leaders.

It is argued that it is more democratic than a simple majority of a party’s MPs choosing their leader, but that approach at least has the merit of meaning elected representatives have the say, not a group of largely anonymous party activists.

If there is anything positive to take from the debacle in Britain, it is that at least the general public were able to see the candidates makes their case in a series of televised debates and hustings to which the media had access.

When Progressive Labour Party delegates vote on whether to continue with David Burt as leader or to replace him with Curtis Dickinson, the public will have had no such opportunity, despite the winner also becoming the premier.

Instead, the delegates, who will number about 150, less than 0.4 per cent of the electorate, will make their decision in private.

To date, there has been no public debate between the two men. Neither are under any obligation to explain how they plan to lead the country. Indeed both have been at pains to say that this is an “internal matter”.

This is nonsense. If the PLP was in opposition, it would be a different matter. Then the election of a leader would have no immediate bearing on the direction of the country. The winner would still have to go to the public in a General Election, as David Burt did in 2017.

Certainly, Mr Burt can claim a mandate from the public from the General Election in 2020. Mr Dickinson, if he is successful, would face pressure to seek his own endorsement from the public, meaning the public would be headed to the polls for the third time in about six years.

The PLP, with some justice, can claim that history is on its side. This is how it has elected its leaders for decades. But that does not make it right.

At the very least, given the stakes, the public should have the opportunity to hear from both Mr Burt and Mr Dickinson in public. The same goes for Walter Roban and Renée Ming, who are contesting the deputy leadership.

Traditionally, candidates for the leadership have given final speeches to the delegates on the night of the leadership vote. At the very least, these speeches should be accessible to the media and the public.

The PLP claims it supports democracy and the civil rights that attend it. Indeed, it was formed for the very purpose of securing universal adult suffrage in Bermuda and bringing about a modern democracy.

But democracy is more than simply counting votes and giving power to the majority.

True democracy requires openness and transparency and testing ideas and policies in the public arena through debate and participation.

Holding meetings and elections behind closed doors is a relic of a bygone era. It has no part in modern politics and treats the public with contempt. It is no way to lead or to set an example.

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Published September 29, 2022 at 8:14 am (Updated September 29, 2022 at 2:21 pm)

Leadership campaign should be held in the open

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