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OBA under threat as PLP enjoys voter swing

Mood swings: in December 2015, the One Bermuda Alliance had a performance approval rating of 42 per cent, with the Progressive Labour Party on 30 per cent. By March 2016, the lead was down to 39-38. The parties have remained close since, with the PLP edging ahead in November and the pair tied at 35-35 this month (Graphic by Zaire Quenette-Lowe)

A little more than a year ago, the One Bermuda Alliance enjoyed a 12-point lead over the Progressive Labour Party. In the first of a three-part series looking at Bermuda’s political landscape at the start of 2017, we ask political commentators how and why that lead withered away

The leader quitting after months of public bickering with his colleagues, a string of resignations and a support said to be growing weary of the mediocrity within its ranks — it was not a vintage year for the Opposition.

And, yet, during 2016, the PLP managed to gain 15 points over the OBA and put itself on the front foot as Bermuda gears up for a General Election year.

Assuming poll results should be taken seriously — and many are losing faith after their dismal efforts at predicting voter behaviour in the United States and Britain — the question is how, in the face of such Opposition turmoil, has the OBA lost its lead so quickly?

According to political commentator Phil Perinchief, the former PLP and Independent election candidate, voter surveys reflect swings that can prove crucial in tight election battlegrounds, and the OBA would be foolish not to take them seriously.

And, looking back on the ruling party’s performance throughout 2016, Mr Perinchief says it is not so much what the OBA did, as the way that it did it.

He pointed to the OBA’s attitude over the airport redevelopment deal, the Pathways to Status Bill and the America’s Cup, telling The Royal Gazette: “Throughout 2016 the OBA has, to its detriment, attempted to meet its election agenda by aggressively at times, thought to be by some even paternalistically and arrogantly, pushing through one unpopular initiative after the other. Their error lies not in adopting these laudable initiatives; their error fundamentally lies in allowing themselves to be perceived as pushing through these initiatives in substitution for, or the neglect of, the delivery of jobs to the jobless, the economic advancement generally of the black middle class and the underprivileged, and healthier and well-resourced public schools.

“The politically attuned, or interested, would recognise that this black middle class, in particular, form the core and bedrock of the swing vote.

“Perception is reality, unfortunately, and the OBA will likely pay a very dear price for this misstep at ensuing election polls. Plain and simply put, the black swing vote wins elections for either party.”

In December 2015, the OBA was leading the polls by 42 to 30. By November last year, after a string of public demonstrations against OBA’s policies, the PLP had edged into a 38-35 lead. A poll by Global Research this month showed the score is now 35-35.

With a margin of error of +/- 5 per cent, most observers reflect that the horses have remained neck-and-neck since the OBA’s large lead ebbed away early in 2016.

The OBA, Mr Perinchief said, has allowed itself from the beginning to be branded as the champion of the privileged classes and the enemy of the less privileged — the unwanted image of the now disbanded United Bermuda Party.

“The instability in the OBA’s ranks as well, and the struggles to redefine themselves out of the brand they have had hung around their necks, have presented them as a party in trouble and likely a one-term government administration,” he said.

This, Mr Perinchief said, had allowed the PLP to emerge relatively unscathed despite numerous controversies involving former leader Marc Bean, who ended up quitting politics after seeing seven of his Shadow Cabinet resign, to be replaced by David Burt.

While repeatedly highlighting the OBA’s failings may be enough for the PLP to regain power, Mr Perinchief warns of trouble ahead if it does not address its own problems. These include, he said, a support base that has “grown tired of mediocrity in its ranks”.

Mr Perinchief said: “The PLP, despite the shambolic internecine debacle and egregious spectacle of fratricidal strife among its ranks, is nevertheless the beneficiary of any popular, real or imagined, dissatisfaction or hostility displayed against the OBA.

“The PLP did not have to do much except play on the drivers of the dissatisfaction; that is, the huge political snafus, largely self-inflicted by the OBA.

“The PLP, in the short run, does not, in essence, have to offer any major alternatives to the OBA’s initiatives in order to win the next election. It can just stay focused, criticise targeted OBA policies, adopt, tweak and later add its own initiatives once it is in power. The PLP’s fundamental problems and shortcomings should not be ignored, however, and if not soon corrected, will inevitably resurface in the longer run while it is in government with disastrous consequences.

“But, for now, on balance and despite an apparent resurgent economy for which the OBA understandably claims credit, 2016 belonged to the PLP.” David Sullivan, the political commentator and former UBP and Independent election candidate, urged caution over poll results.

He said: “Polling, certainly in recent times, has come under considerable scrutiny due to its failure in getting the sense of the people correct.

“Brexit and the recent US elections are just two glaring examples. In Bermuda, a notably small sample base, polling on current events as opposed to general direction exacerbates the potential for getting it wrong. People are fickle. The most recent poll, from January 5 to 9, showing a whopping 86 per cent of the people against the Bermuda Industrial Union actions and threats, with equally strong internals, is a case in point.

It also explains the speed at which the PLP moved, albeit late, to distance itself from such threats.

“Therefore, I think that the December polling is only indicative of a point in time, as opposed to any revelation of a trend in the electorate.”

Mr Perinchief emphasised that, while a day is a long time in politics, a year can prove to be an eternity.

“Much good that is achieved over the previous year could be totally erased or reversed in a matter of hours because of an unpopular, mismanaged or untimely initiative, as we have witnessed,” he said.

He described the PLP’s gain over the OBA as, at best, a “popular, national mini-referendum of a section of the voting population, which may have no impact whatsoever on the fortunes or outcomes of the inevitable winning party, or number of parliamentarians elected, in a by-election, or more so, a General Election”.

However, he continued: “The popular vote reflected in the subject polls in Bermuda will have the greatest impact in the battleground marginal constituencies, where a gain in popular sentiment or support for one party could occasion the loss of support for another party or its candidate running for office in that affected marginal constituency.

“That’s why polls here cannot be totally ignored or dismissed out of hand as irrelevant.

“That’s a fool’s approach and very risky, even dangerous, if a party is serious about winning marginal contituencies, particularly in a tight election.”

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