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When responsibilities differ and priorities shift

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It has been said that there are no friends in politics, only allies who have common interests that can and do shift from time to time. In fact, as former US president Harry Truman once famously said about life in Washington (read politics): if it is a friend you are looking for, get a dog.

So it is that allies become supporters, and supporters become allies, but that, too, can change, and there can be strong disagreements like that which has led to the present conflict between the Bermuda Industrial Union and the Progressive Labour Party government.

Differences between the BIU and the PLP are nothing new. For those who do not know, or for those who have not lived through those times, I highly recommend two insightful works that document a history that must not be overlooked and, frankly, should not be forgotten.

They are Bermuda and The Struggle for Reform: Race, Politics and Ideology, 1944-1998 by former MP the late Walton Brown Jr and The History of the Bermuda Industrial Union by former journalist the late Ira Philip.

The late Walton Brown Jr
The late Ira Philip

As it so happens, as many readers may know, both were members of the PLP, and Mr Philip also a key figure in the BIU, having served on the union’s executive in its critical, formative years.

Both books highlight the natural and obvious link between these two institutions, down through the years, and the influence each had on the other right from the get-go.

It wasn’t always roses. Walton Brown’s industrious research led to this candid assessment: looking back, he wrote that there were some important differences both in terms of ideology and strategy, which helped to create “an uneasy relationship” between these two representatives of labour.

Mr Philip, who also served as a senator for the PLP from 1985 to 1991, disclosed in his book that in those early years concern centred not so much on threats from outside the ranks of the BIU, but from those within, as conflict arose between those with a political agenda — formation of the PLP — and those who were focused on the advancement of trade unionism.

Sound familiar?

As an interesting aside, but illustrative of the point, readers will also learn of the position the BIU took back in the late 1960s when a constitutional conference loomed and the issue of independence was being advanced by the PLP. The union believed that independence should be by way of a public referendum and not the decision of any political party.

While natural allies in the cause for social reform generally, and in the case of the BIU specifically for the day-to-day advancement of rights and benefits for workers, Walton Brown sets out in his book clearly, and convincingly, where — and why — a divergence of interests began. It was back in the 1980s when the PLP came within three seats of winning the government.

In his words: “The PLP had embraced a more conservative ideology as it pursued electoral politics in the hope of winning the Black middle-class vote. And it appeared to be working.”

The approach eventually worked and decades later the biggest change came when the PLP won the government; and thus successive PLP governments have had to meet the challenges of changed economic conditions and circumstances in Bermuda. That, of necessity, has not been without its impact on the PLP, the BIU and their relationship. Responsibilities differ. Priorities shift.

Speculation was rife that this latest disagreement will lead to a split and maybe even the formation of a new political party or force. This may be wishful thinking in some quarters. It has been tried in the past — and without success. In the late 1970s, the Bermuda Worker Socialist Party emerged in response to the PLP’s move to the Centre or, as Walton Brown described it, “to the PLP’s new conservative bent”.

It petered out — as almost all third-party attempts in Bermuda seem to do.

Skilled negotiators have a way of finding a way back in. Political parties and their allies are no different. We have seen this, too, down through the years. While easy to forget today, the ability to make up with “friends” was a successful feature of the 30-year tenure of the United Bermuda Party — at least up until the very end.

They call it realpolitik.

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Published September 16, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated September 15, 2021 at 8:10 pm)

When responsibilities differ and priorities shift

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