PLP woes stem from ‘cult of hero worship’
After a tortuous few months for the Progressive Labour Party, Tim Smith, News Editor, asked political observers how the Opposition ended up in its precarious position, and how it could plan a more prosperous 2016.
Just five years ago, the trickiest question facing the Progressive Labour Party was whether life had simply got too easy.
With a new and universally liked Premier at the helm and a fragmented Opposition teetering on the brink, the only fear in December 2010 was that there might end up being so many PLP MPs that there would not be enough green ties to go around.
If Michael Dunkley is feeling complacent after his endorsement in political polls results this month, the Premier could do worse than remind himself what happened next to the PLP.
Weeks of bitter infighting at Alaska Hall, multiple Shadow Cabinet resignations, an increasingly under-fire leader in Marc Bean and a record-breaking 30 to 42 deficit to the One Bermuda Alliance are the culmination, to many onlookers, of a desperate slide that began when the former Premier, Paula Cox, opted against calling a snap election at the peak of the PLP's powers.
By early 2011, the window of opportunity was gone: Ms Cox's honeymoon period had withered away amid public discontent at a prolonged economic crisis.
The new-broom OBA, promising to sweep those blues away, claimed a victory in the 2012 General Election that nobody could have predicted two years earlier.
For political commentator Phil Perinchief, however, the seeds of the PLP's difficult times have actually been sowed over decades of ego trips, class divisions and cliques, now brought to the fore by the split between young and old that has dominated internal affairs in recent months.
While the PLP's rich history is decorated with celebrated leaders such as Dame Lois Browne-Evans, Freddie Wade, Dame Jennifer Smith and Ewart Brown, Mr Perinchief believes such individualism is in fact a part of the problem.
“The PLP's current difficulties stem from an historical unwillingness to move past the cult of individualistic hero worship to collective, informed and respectful leadership,” the former PLP Attorney-General told The Royal Gazette.
“Factionalised cliques, further exacerbated by misguided egos, anti-intellectualism and class divisions, have from as early as Dame Lois and Freddie Wade plagued the PLP.”
Mr Perinchief said that for many years, the PLP was held together, in spite of these rifts, by a mutual respect between veterans and the youth.
However, that bond has eroded over time, particularly during the Brown administration when long-serving members grew frustrated as key roles were handed to less experienced colleagues. Many of those seasoned members, according to Mr Perinchief, have since walked away, leaving the PLP “in a precarious state”.
The most prominent young member, Mr Bean, took over as leader on a night of hope and glory for his generation in 2012, but he has found forming a credible Opposition an uphill task. Seven people recently resigned from his Shadow Cabinet, with one of them, Zane DeSilva, declaring it a result of his leadership.
Senior MPs are now said to be rallying the branches to set up a special delegates conference to oust Mr Bean, and even his old mentor, Dr Brown, has threatened to sue him over his remarks at a heated meeting.
The rift has been likened to the United Bermuda Party resignations under Kim Swan that led to the formation of the Bermuda Democratic Alliance in 2009, as well as damaging PLP splits in the 1960s and 1980s.
Mr Perinchief said: “They can learn from the UBP split in 2009. They must fundamentally revamp, rank and file, administratively and among their political group, top to bottom, or suffer the fate of the UBP.”
However, Guilden Gilbert, another political observer, argued: “The only lesson to be learnt is that politics is fickle and support can be fleeting. The leadership issues will either result in a leadership change or a rallying around the current leadership going into an election.
“I don't see it as anything substantial or detrimental to the PLP. Disagreement, in my view, is healthy. The resignations just signal that those MPs do not support their leader. So it is a leadership issue more than a party issue.”
Mr Perinchief said the PLP must now put egos aside for the good of the country.
“They have to bring on board the correct blend of young and experience, clear succession plans and mentorship to energise and gradually move the PLP to being viewed as a party that can govern again,” he added.
As for Mr Dunkley, he now has the option to kick the Opposition while it is down, which Ms Cox declined to do in 2010 with a snap election, the tactic famously employed by UBP leader Sir John Swan in 1984 that saw the PLP lose seven seats in the House of Assembly.
Mr Perinchief warned such a move could galvanise the PLP, adding: “The best time for Premier Dunkley to call an election is when he has substantially delivered on his 2012 election promises and Throne Speech initiatives and has reduced unemployment significantly.”
Mr Guilden said: “They are not getting the level of support that would give them confidence that they could win an election.
“Many see the OBA as being unable to deliver on many promises, and to blatantly go back on fixed-term elections by calling a snap election would not go over well. I can see the OBA potentially calling an election leading up to the America's Cup.”
In the meantime, he said, both parties have a long way to go to claim the support of the 28 per cent of residents who, according to this month's survey for The Royal Gazette, would vote for neither of them.
“I am not enthused with either party,” he said. “The PLP does not seem able to effectively oppose the OBA, and the OBA does not seem to be able to fulfil the promises it made.
“Many Bermudians are in the same boat as me, but instead of the political parties listening to the people, they prefer to follow their own agenda, which pander to their base support.”
• For Mr Perinchief's assessment in full, see our Opinion section.