Of the people, for the people?
The delegates conference, a ritual performed each autumn since the Progressive Labour Party's inception back in 1963, is sacred to the function of the organisation, yet seemingly disconnected and inconsequential to the broad party support.
The conference has taken place every year except once — in 1965. Who are the delegates? And what does it mean or is intended to mean? What was its purpose at its inception and what is it now?
It will be difficult to reproduce an absolute purpose given the divergent group assembled, many of whom were lawyers back in the early 1960s. Also, given the times when there was major change in the British Empire with countries after the Second World War and in the early 1960s making strident efforts towards independence including the strife in Northern Ireland, all had impact on what could or should happen in Bermuda. This was not a one-way street; there was going to be pushback. Whatever was to happen in Bermuda needed to be cohesive at the very least.
Based on the direct words of one lawyer who was in fact the first leader, Arnold Francis: "Our first objective was to fill the branches.“
He saw or had the vision of all the people and supporters of the party as being a part of many parish branches. We can fully appreciate today that most people back then did not have the right to vote. It would be unthinkable that he did not believe that every supporter who in those days was without a vote would be voiceless within the newly formed party. As a matter of principle the first leader included the term "provisional" before the word “leader” — Provisional Leader A. Francis. The idea was he would accept the term “leader” only after the branches were full and they ratified him as the party leader.
If that were the case and the branches became full of supporters, you can understand the rationale if there were 10,000 or more, the effective way of gaining participation would be to develop a system for delegates proportionately to represent the masses of people. The progressive element or philosophy inherent was to give the people the power to determine the fate and direction of the party — and not the hierarchy. That truly would have been ipso facto the people's party.
The Sixties was an archipelago of ideas, propelled by labour movements, and socialist and even communist ideas when you examine all the players in and around the room. We even had the infamous Geoffrey Bing’s wife, Eileen, who did much work with the organisational aspect, with him no doubt in the background. Geoffrey being linked to radical, if not communist support, is not to suggest that was bad because that was a time which was at the end of abject colonialism when all efforts to end discrimination and subjection were welcomed. However, with the combinations of some progressives and moderates, along with radical elements, that mix of thrust was a toxic brew too strong for a fledgeling party to maintain under one hat. As a result, it could survive for only two years before it would break up.
That break-up in 1965 was devastating to the party and more devastating to the progressive goals and vision of filling the branches. The original idea was not of having 20 and 30 member branches with thousands of disenfranchised supporters of the party on the outside; it devolved to that state. The original idea, when the leader declared himself as only the provisional leader, it was so as not to be a top-down hierarchy, where the branches and delegates are subordinate to the leader — it was to be bottom-up, with the authority at the base instead. Let me emphasise the base then was considered the many tens of thousands of what we now see as voters, and not a few hundred or a thousand members. It wasn't “me and my mates”; it was the populace.
As the party moves forward, it is helpful to look back to see whence it came. It is also worth asking whether it is still a goal to fill the branches. Or, more importantly, whether the goal is to enfranchise all those branch supporters in the fold, so they also can be counted and have their input expressed through delegates of their choice.