Canary in the coalmine
“I will argue that the Constitution played a significant role in maintaining racial inequality in Bermuda following the civil rights era. While it ostensibly sought to end racial discrimination through its requirement that ‘no law shall make any provision which is discriminatory either of itself or in effect on the basis of race, place or origin, political opinions, colour or creed’, it did not require any measures to be taken to overcome existing racial inequalities.” — Professor Nicola Barker (50th anniversary of the Bermuda Constitution)
“So it would appear that this time we can safely surmise that anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 eligible voters who normally do vote elected this time not to go to the polls. That is a significant number of voters in constituencies as small as ours.”— former MP John Barritt (The Royal Gazette, 2020 General Election)
I firmly believe, as I written before some months ago, that the political, economic and financial models that so defined Bermuda for more than 50 years are no longer sustainable. That it has reached this point is as a consequence not only of local factors, the last election being but one significant indicator for me, but also because of the major strategic, geopolitical shifts globally among nations and regional/international bodies that has been characterised as a restructuring of what had been until lately an unchallenged Western-dominated global order.
But for now I want to stay firmly focused on the House that Jack Built (Sir Henry Tucker) during a time in the 1960s as the British Empire began to decline and the calls for democracy grew in all of its far-flung possessions. A time that now seems so long ago.
On the political front, the last election represented the canary in the coalmine.
The day after the election, we woke up to find that canary dead amid a massive historic collapse of the voter participation rate as per the 2017 General Election, which affected both parties — although not equally owing to the “first past the post, winner takes all” nature of the electoral system that richly rewarded the Progressive Labour Party in terms of the number of seats won, despite the party seeing thousands of voters who voted for the Government in 2017 stay at home in 2020. Unfortunately for the One Bermuda Alliance, it saw an even bigger drop in its support at the polls by way of contrast to three years earlier.
So let’s start with the United Bermuda Party … er … One Bermuda Alliance; it can get so confusing. It saw its vote tally of 8,314 in 2020’s General Election represent a decline in voting support by 5,523 over 2017. And when compared with 2012, it has seen its tally decline or haemorrhage by a grand, combined total of 7,635 voters (Source: the Parliamentary Registrar). In my view, and let’s not kid ourselves, it will take a minimum of two whole election cycles at best — measured from the 2020 election — for the OBA to have any chance of taking the government. It may be in fact finished as a viable alternative already.
I seriously doubt that the team of mediocrities inhabiting its paltry six seats in the House of Assembly, along with most of its announced candidates led by party leader Cole Simons — not necessarily the most charismatic or compelling figure — are going to make any substantive difference in their electoral fortunes, save for picking up an additional two of three “charity” seats. That is if the gods are merciful to them at the next election. I am sure some men and women of faith among them believe that miracles can indeed happen. However, the odds say otherwise.
Yes, I know some will draw the comparison with the PLP when it was down to seven seats in the Lower House after the 1983 election, but those seven members comprised Lois Browne-Evans, Freddie Wade, Walter Lister, Walter Roberts, Stanley Lowe and Stanley Morton — effectively a team of political and intellectual giants compared writh the OBA’s team today, and it still took them more than a decade to recover. So let’s keep it real.
The OBA continues to follow the old 1960s Sir Henry Tucker/Henry Vesey electoral model, or formula of the UBP, which was to keep about 97 per cent of the White vote on the political reservation while seeking to achieve about 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the Black vote. But to have achieved this level of collapse of its vote in 2020 can only mean that both its Black and, even more troubling, a fairly large portion of its White voting base has to a large degree abandoned the OBA. And remember this slide actually began for them in the aforementioned 2017 election.
The White bogeyman — with a Black face legislatively — as represented by the UBP/OBA is not 20ft tall right now because of that collapse in voter participation at the last election. My guess is that it’s about 2ft tall and this may contribute to a climate where voters mostly on the PLP side are prepared to take political risks without the fear of imminent return to power of the OBA . This, however, does not mean that all is well for the PLP — far from it.
On the PLP side of the political ledger, I will start with this, which is an old Norse proverb:
“A friend with wings has the enemy that flies.”
Much like the OBA, the PLP has a fundamental problem. While the OBA lost 5,000-plus voters from 2017 to 2020, the PLP did not do much better with a 4,064 decline in votes at the last election. Second, and more troubling, it has a leader that epitomises the old Norse proverb.
David Burt, as is now gospel, is someone who when he perceives his power and position being threatened will resort to behaviour that is manifestly dishonest and he will routinely act in a manner that is not forthright. On this front, we have numerous examples. It is not for nothing that he has now earned the nickname “the Master of Deceit”.
This behaviour has served him well in his quest to amass power and be accepted in Bermuda by those who first rejected him as a young adult seeking to build a career in the White-dominated corporate sector. Back then he did not support the PLP at all and in fact despised the party and what it represented, including its racial justice advocacy. But among growing numbers of Black PLP supporters of various age groups, he is now the one being openly despised.
In my view, he is the ultimate social climber. It is no secret that we have had two back-to-back leaders of the PLP who did not support the party during that seminal 1998 election win or during the early years as we entered the first decade of PLP government.
A conservative who “comes across as a little weak to me”, to quote a 90-year-old senior, Burt has presided over a party that he has turned into some sort of military school, such as the one he attended in the United States. He has also leads a party and government that continues to slip rightward to such an extent that one would be hard-pressed to make any meaningful distinction between this PLP government and, say, the UBP government under Sir John Swan circa 1989 or the OBA opposition today.
Now don’t get me wrong, the present PLP, dominated as it is at the highest level by a new generation of conservative Berkeleyites and increasingly by Blacks who are graduates of our private-school system, has always had a conservative wing or tendency — take Dennis Lister, for example. However, that trend has been historically more than counterbalanced by more pro-labour and progressive elements within the party and a parliamentary group that included Berkeleyites.
Today’s party is, to quote my favourite pastor, one that is neither pro-labour nor progressive — economic and racial justice — in the fine tradition of a L.F. Wade, Arthur Hodgson or “Aunt Lois”, as in Browne-Evans.
It is really amazing to see another massive electoral mandate wasted, and in this case I am speaking of 2017 General Election. The PLP has a habit of doing that. Take 1998, 2007 and 2017. Hopes that were raised by the Black working poor by the 2017 party platform’s commitment to progressive public policies largely lobbied for by myself and the People’s Campaign under the Reverend Nicholas Tweed still have not been realised. Instead, we increasingly see those who clearly thought their mission was simply to take their place behind the big desk in the corner office as we cheered them on with undying adoration — what we can now call locational change. This extends to the conservative Black civil servants who are mostly PLP supporters and are now the most conservative anchor around the party’s neck, along with most of the people in the Cabinet and Caucus.
But Burt is not alone. Take Wayne Furbert, the former leader of the UBP, who has found a nice comfortable landing pad in the PLP, as has Jamahl Simmons, another former UBP MP — two arch proponents of locational change, as are Burt, Lawrence Scott and Wayne Caines (Mr Virtue Signaller) or others operating at the highest levels of the party and government, but who like Burt are not committed to systemic change at any level; at least not the progressive variety.
There was an expectation that this party would implement the type of change that would tangibly improve the lives of those at the bottom of income distribution in Bermuda, who I might add overwhelmingly look like them and who in my estimation comprise roughly 50 per cent to 60 per cent of the PLP’s base. Those people are facing the hammer blows of living in a country with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, along with the ruinous cost of living that is its by-product. Yet, after five years, still no
• Living wage
• Measures from the cost of living committee
• Universal healthcare
• Reform of our tax system to ensure that corporations such as in international business and local businesses at the top end of the pyramid, such as Belco and its holding company by way of example, pay their fair share of taxes
To those people, mostly Black and earning near poverty-level wages or worse, the PLP’s answer as the food lines grow longer and longer, and the ranks of those without health insurance expand to 6,000 — 91 per cent Black — is to simply watch, as those who can leave to migrate to Britain silently do so. Because for many of those who have left they have done so because they can no longer afford to live in Bermuda. I estimate that roughly 4,000 have taken flight since the Great Recession of 2008.
Clearly, there is no haste after five years to address these critical issues. Not in a party and government who believes in affirmative action, but only for themselves. And a culture that turns a blind eye to the worst form of political cannibalism in order to ensure its place in the pecking order.
Is this what the PLP and Black Bermuda have been reduced to? Clearly, neither they nor their OBA counterparts are ready for the new world that is at hand.
• Rolfe Commissiong was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) between December 2012 and August 2020, and the former chairman of the joint select committee considering the establishment of a living wage