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A tale of two parties

David Burt, the Premier, and Cole Simons, the Leader of the Opposition, at the Opening of Parliament. (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Bermuda’s political parties conjure up images of two different cars. One has a stylish body and looks good, but is severely underpowered, while the other has a good working engine, but a terrible blocky shape and not enough style to make it appealing.

The Progressive Labour Party Government’s Throne Speech and the opposition One Bermuda Alliance’s reply last month showed this.

The Throne Speech had the usual helping of high-flown language, but was desperately short of policy prescriptions.

The One Bermuda Alliance’s speech had a clearer narrative than some of leader Cole Simons’s previous efforts, and picked holes in some government policies, but still lacked an overall philosophy that would give the public a sense of what the party would try to achieve if it was in government.

Of the two speeches, the Throne Speech is the more concerning since it is the Government that has the ability to do something about the multiple problems facing Bermuda.

Part of the problem is that David Burt, the Premier, is, according to his own ministers, tightly focused on delivering the pledges in the PLP’s 2020 manifesto. There is nothing wrong with that, especially since the common complaint about politicians is that they do not keep their promises.

But any such focus must also pay attention to how Bermuda and the world is changing.

Bermuda had high prices in 2020, but these were relatively stable, not rising stratospherically. Nor was there a war in Ukraine and the supply-chain problems arising from Covid-19 were not entirely clear either.

What is more worrying is the Government’s general failure to get to grips with a second decade of economic stagnation.

This stagnation has only worsened in recent months. It might have been reasonable to expect the economy to grow strongly a year after the worst of the pandemic’s shutdowns, yet Bermuda’s economy actually contracted in real terms between April and June.

The flatness of the economy was already obvious before GDP figures were released last week, but the Throne Speech failed to address these problems in any real way.

The mini-bombshell that the Government was beginning a pursuit of Independence will not have given many people comfort. When you need help now, whether any benefits of Independence are genuine or illusory is irrelevant. The public needs action now, regardless of Bermuda’s current economic status.

The public will get little more succour if they turn to the Opposition.

The OBA’s fundamental problem is that it does not offer a clear sense of what it stands for or what its core values are. Some of its leaders may feel that is unfair, but if they know, they should be telling their supporters again and again.

In this sense, Mr Simons would do well to follow the example of Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the British Labour Party, if not in policies, then in approach.

Sir Keir came into the leadership on the heels of Labour’s worst election defeat since the 1930s. Led by an unpopular and out-of-touch leader, it had lost seats in its “red wall“, its heartland where defeat was hitherto inconceivable.

Sir Keir’s first moves were to move his party away from the extremist policies his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, had promoted, and to get rid a of a nasty strain of anti-Semitism that had crept in.

Having quite ruthlessly moved aside Labour’s more extreme leaders and policies, Sir Keir then set about undermining the Conservative Government’s reputation for competence, a task made easier by the clownish leadership Boris Johnson.

Having accomplished that, and established a reputation for fiscal sense, Sir Keir is now starting to set down Labour’s policy positions, a sensible approach given that an election may still be two years away.

Mr Simons has not yet taken a similar approach, but time is, just, on his side.

He needs to take a hard look at why the OBA was so badly beaten in 2020 and why much of its traditional support either voted for the PLP or stayed at home.

He needs to separate the party from the inept leadership that put it in that position.

At the same time, he needs to set the three or four core values of the OBA. This, in truth, should not be that difficult. It should include:

• A belief that a Bermuda where the races work together is a Bermuda that succeeds for everyone

• That the Government should set a framework for economic success and then let free enterprise work its magic

• That the Government should remove all impediments to success and opportunity so anyone, regardless of race or background, can succeed, and

• That Government has an obligation to help the most vulnerable in society.

These approaches are quite different to the typical PLP approach and should also have broad appeal. And these principles should be able to guide virtually all of its policy-making.

Having established these principles, it should also be able to use them to attack the Government while presenting an alternative policy.

There is no need at this stage, when an election is still some way out, to lay out detailed policies that would likely have to change before a general election.

But emphasising the principles should happen all the time. Mr Simons has time to reassert his party’s claim to being an viable alternative to the PLP, but he needs to first explain what he and his party stand for.

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Published December 14, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated December 14, 2022 at 12:02 pm)

A tale of two parties

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