Sunday, 15 April 2012 02:30
By Everton Barnes
Over the past week, I have been approached by a number of people who wanted to hear my take on the recent public row between the leadership of the Antigua Labour Party and its chairman, Gaston Browne, over the economic citizenship issue.
I have decided to make my answer to be the framework for this week’s Inside Politics article.
Firstly, unless one is unfamiliar with the history of the Antigua Labour Party, s/he would know that internal conflicts have been part of its growth over these many years. If one goes back to the early years of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (AT&LU), which gave birth to the ALP, there have been a number of major conflicts going back almost to the time of its inception.
In 1943, VC Bird engineered a take-over of the union, and there was another purging of the organisation in the late 1940’s. It was another major shake-up that led to the departure of George Walter el al in 1967-68, and many would remember the bitter conflicts between Lester Bird and the late Reuben Harris in the early 1980’s.
In fact, this reporter remembers that in the mid-1980’s, when then deputy prime minister Lester Bird convened a meeting of businessmen at the ACB conference room to detail his plans to redevelop lower St John’s into what is today Heritage Quay, Reuben Harris, a member of the Cabinet, was present, and openly expressed strong opposition to the project.
Bird listened attentively to his colleague, and calmly restated his position. The development was approved, and the rest is history.
There was also a bitter and very divisive fight within the ALP when an aging VC Bird was about to exit the political stage. Former finance minister John St Luce had the backing of the majority of Cabinet members, who were expected to deliver their delegates to vote in his favour at a special convention to select a leader.
Lester Bird, armed with the Bird pedigree and over 15 years’ experience as deputy prime minister, felt that he had earned the position.
Going into the convention, many felt that St Luce, with support from even Lester’s brother, Vere Bird Jnr, would emerge winner. At the convention, a strange thing happened - both men emerged with equal votes.
There are some who to this day have said that St Luce and his team ought to have demanded a recount; there was none. At the next convention, Bird won convincingly and became political leader, a position he still holds today.
The reasons for the history lesson are two-fold; firstly to highlight the fact that conflict has been a part of the ALP for many years, and secondly, to highlight a glaring defect in the party. That defect is the ALP’s inability to clearly set out procedures and systems for succession and renewal.
VC Bird retired in his 80’s, and there are many who felt that he should have left the scene as much as 10 years earlier. His failure to do so, and to clearly identify, with the assistance perhaps of his senior executive members, a successor, gave rise to the bitter infighting that fractured the party with the emergence of factions.
It almost led to the unseating of VC Bird himself, with the move by the infamous "Gang of 6" led by Lester Bird and there attempt to move a motion of no-confidence in his administration.
Unlike previous major conflicts, today’s public spats are taking place in an era of instant communication. A person doesn’t have to wait for the evening news; these disagreements are highlighted instantly and repeatedly. A political party in the 21st century has to be able not just to manage conflicts, but also to manage the process.
A political party, without clearly defined rules of succession, and where aging leaders do not recognise the "psychological moment" for them to leave the political stage, is only fermenting distrust and division.
The average voter in Antigua & Barbuda, if one is to take the census data, is likely to be female and below age 40. When that person looks at the ALP ticket, in its present configuration, what is there to attract the voter?
The optics (borrowing a term from the late Mr Harris) is wrong; a party lead by aging men with a token female or two. This is an optical illusion, because it does not reflect the society! It does not represent!
For this article, Inside Politics wanted to have one-on-one discussions separately with both Browne and Bird. But while Browne readily made himself available, meeting with Bird was a challenge, and it did not materialize.
Browne was very clear on the issue of leadership in the ALP. He said this has been at the root of many of the problems affecting the party. “The problem in the ALP is that the party leadership has been in transition for several years," he said. "It is the root cause of many of the issues that publicly seem to be tearing the party apart."
He is of the view that such conflicts are inevitable as, in his mind, the vacancy that is associated with transitional leadership will create competition among aspirants for the post of ultimate leader.
The ALP chairman is predicting that the aspirants will remain in competitive mode until "a sustaining leader emerges".
Inside Politics has surmised from a number of direct interactions that Browne’s assessment of the situation may find favour with the intellectuals, but for the rank and file of the organisation, all they hear is that the party’s leaders are having serious disagreements on the airwaves over an issue that is not an immediate concern for them. They are worried.
More on this issue in the next installment of Inside Politics.