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Smith’s North and the case for independent candidates

Independent prospects: Sir John Swan reflects on the outcome of the Smith’s North by-election (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Voters who backed Sir John Swan as an independent candidate in the Smith’s North by-election reflected the former premier’s popularity rather than an appetite for independent candidates, according to political observers.

Sir John, who served as premier under the United Bermuda Party from 1982 to 1995, said ahead of the polls last Wednesday that he hoped his bid for Constituency 10 would act as a political catalyst for would-be independent MPs.

Robert King, of the One Bermuda Alliance, prevailed with 209 votes.

However, Sir John was not far behind at 184 — just ahead of Lindsay Simmons, of the Progressive Labour Party, who secured 181 votes.

Michael Dunkley, a former OBA premier and MP for the constituency, believed voters supported the candidate rather than the idea.

He explained: “I think it goes down to Sir John, a very shrewd politician who knows how to get people to vote for him.

“His reputation from the time he served is still there. But I don’t think there’s any other independent candidate that would have had his ability.”

Mr Dunkley’s retirement in March, which triggered the by-election, closed a political career that ended with three terms as MP for Smith’s North.

He said he “always viewed it as a PLP constituency that I worked through the years and worked hard”.

“The most significant thing I took away from the result is how few votes the PLP got.”

Mr Dunkley said he was “shocked” that Ms Simmons “only got 181 votes”.

He told The Royal Gazette on Thursday: “If I were a betting man, I would have lost a lot of money. They got less than 200 votes. That’s the big takeaway.

“David Burt may not say anything publicly, but I’m sure he didn’t sleep well last night.

“It sends a very clear message that people are not happy with the performance of the current government, and I’m sure that would be parlayed across the island.

“As much as they tried to say they did a good job, no one in the party would have predicted they couldn’t break 200.”

Mr Dunkley said the voter turnout of roughly 45 per cent fit with his predictions.

“By-elections always seem to have lower voter turnout, but voter apathy with the PLP and, to some extent, politics in general is lower than I’ve seen in some time.”

He added: “What clouded my prediction, which I kept pretty quiet about, was I didn’t know the impact Sir John would have and obviously did.

“The 184 votes he got, I think the vast number came from the OBA base, so it made it a little closer than I anticipated.”

Smith’s North and Sir John Swan: political take from Cordell Riley

When it comes to voters’ inclination to break from the Westminister party system, political commentator Cordell Riley felt support for Sir John Swan in Smith’s North failed to demonstrate a turning of the tide.

He said: “It’s more specific to him — the history of independents in elections is not good, with the exception of Stuart Hayward.

“He did well because he is John Swan, respected across the community as a politician and elder statesman. When he put his hat in the ring, he brought that with him.

“I don’t think anyone else could have done as well.”

He added: “I expected it to be close. I didn’t think it would be that close. We really did have a three-horse race.”

Mr Riley speculated that both parties lost votes to the former premier, with the PLP having to contend with disaffected voters.

He said: “If the PLP had won, what could they have done with 31 seats that they could not have done already with 30?

“The biggest upset would have been if Swan won. But if he had won, I do not think it would have helped an independent movement as such.

“Those who went out and voted for Sir John were not voting for an independent.”

Jonathan Starling, who ran as an independent candidate in 2012, admitted his prediction for Smith’s North turned out “clearly wrong”.

He said he had expected Sir John to split the OBA vote, clearing the way for a win by Ms Simmons.

“Why that prediction was wrong is something that I'm sure many pundits, especially the PLP, are going to be closely looking at to see if there's anything to learn from for the next General Election.

“What we do know is that turnout was low, even for by-elections, at 45 per cent.”

By comparison, the October by-election in Smith’s South, an OBA stronghold, brought out 47 per cent of voters.

“I feel that reduced turnout is due to the supermajority that the PLP won in 2020; the PLP winning a 31st seat doesn't really change anything, same with the OBA winning or losing a by-election.”

Mr Starling said voters were less motivated to turn out for “what is, in a sense, a meaningless election in terms of parliamentary arithmetic”.

“The PLP did come third, though both the PLP and the independent got essentially 32 per cent — a matter of three votes.”

He added: “The lessons we can draw from independents since the switch to single-seat constituencies is that, in general, they're not competitive compared with parties.”

He said voters would wonder “what utility they can have as a single vote in Parliament”, while parties could deploy “a robust electoral machinery”.

Mr Starling noted that when Kim Swan secured 23 per cent of votes as an independent in 2012, that result similarly reflected “his name recognition and parliamentary experience”.

He said: “John Swan certainly has name recognition, parliamentary experience and a large war chest, so those helped him mitigate the usual challenges independents face.

“I doubt his success would be replicated by other independents without those advantages — and I can't really think of many possible candidates like him.”

Mr Starling felt it was unlikely that Sir John secured votes from people who otherwise would have stayed at home.

The low turnout suggested “a protest vote, more than anything”.

“He seemed to have taken votes from both candidates, rather than just the OBA, which is interesting.”

Mr Starling said some PLP voters would have seen it as “a low-stakes by-election”, while others would feel disillusioned with the ruling party because of the poor economic climate and high cost of living, especially food prices.

He also cited “dismay at local factors” with residents’ concerns over CCTV in the Loyal Hill area.

Speculating on the next General Election, Mr Starling said: “I would expect the PLP to be reduced to something like 22 seats, with the OBA on 14 seats, though if enough PLP voters stay home for various reasons — while I don't think we'll see a repeat of 2012 in terms of a loss — I can see them being reduced to 19 seats, leading to a very small parliamentary majority.

“I can't really see any independents getting elected, at least not without constitutional reform allowing for proportional representation and perhaps ranked voting.”

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Published May 27, 2024 at 7:58 am (Updated May 27, 2024 at 10:11 am)

Smith’s North and the case for independent candidates

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