Public will never back labour govt
By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, June 24 2012
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Dr Winford James ... voting always along ethnic lines...
Fired up by its decision to exit the two-year-old People’s Partnership (PP) Government, the fledgling Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) is intent on mobilising itself into a major political force in the country, possibly to contest the next general election, constitutionally due in 2015.
“The time has come for the MSJ to paddle its own canoe,” MSJ political leader David Abdulah said in a prepared speech during a news conference at the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) headquarters in San Fernando last Sunday.
But even as he announced the MSJ’s plan to develop into a strong political entity, Abdulah, who also relinquished his senatorial appointment, acknowledged the magnitude of the task ahead.
“We recognise that to build a mass party, non-ethnic, and which does not depend on the largesse of either the State or powerful financiers, is not an easy task,” he said.
“This cannot be achieved by me simply resigning from the Senate or the MSJ leaving the Partnership. It can only happen by way of political action.”
Many interpreted Abdulah’s statement as a bid for high political office and several trade union leaders, during the annual Labour Day observance in Fyzabad on Tuesday, also hailed the veteran labour leader as the country’s next Prime Minister.
Apart from Basdeo Panday, who emerged from the bowels of the labour movement and became a high-ranking member of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers’ Trade Union (ATSGWTU) — but later qualified as a lawyer — heads of government in Trinidad and Tobago have largely been professionals.
Former PNM leader Patrick Manning, recuperating from a stroke in the United States, is a geologist by profession, while Arthur NR Robinson and current Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar are both attorneys. George Chambers, who led the PNM after the death of this country’s first Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, in 1981, was said to have had some experience in accounting and finance.
Abdulah noted in his address, last Sunday, that while there has been trade union/activist representation in past regimes, no labour party has ever been elected to govern the country.
Is Trinidad and Tobago ready, then, for a truly labour-oriented government, having regard to the fact that labour has long played a role in the political life of the country?
Talking to Sunday Newsday about the development last week, political analysts expressed mixed views about the country’s readiness to embrace a government peopled mostly by trade unionists and others in the labour sector.
Dr Indira Rampersad, lecturer in Government and Political Science at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies, does not see the MSJ making any significant impact before the next general election. At present, she said, “The MSJ is not a political force. They do not have a political base. It has never played a role in the politics. A lot of people did not know about MSJ before May 2010.”
Noting the input of labour-oriented entities in the past, Rampersad was, however, quick to make a distinction with the MSJ.
She argued that unlike the MSJ, a new political party, many of the labour entities over the years were strongly aligned to political parties.
“We have had it in the past with the Farmers and Workers’ Party, that was when Mr (Basdeo) Panday (former prime minister) made his grand entry into politics,” she said.
“The All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers’ Trade Union has always been aligned to the DLP (Democratic Labour Party), ULF (United Labour Front), UNC (United National Congress), not as a political party but as a trade union aligned to a political party. So that flirtation between labour and politics was always there.”
Rampersad believes, however, that the country may be reluctant to accept a mass political party formed out of the trade union movement, because citizens have historically voted along ethnic lines.
“That is a challenge that the country has not embraced,” she said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
“Labour has not been able to attract the masses. Citizens tend to align themselves ethnically rather than gravitate towards a labour movement.”
Saying she did not see a future for the MSJ in this country, Rampersad said she feels the party is likely to suffer the same fate as other third parties such as the Congress of the People (COP), which, like the MSJ, has also had grievances with the UNC element in the Partnership.
“I think the politics is still ethnic-based,” she told Sunday Newsday.
Rampersad also feels that the inflammatory nature of some of the Labour Day addresses will not augur well for a party seeking to form the government.
She said, “I think the tone of the weekend — the belligerence and the aggression — is not amenable to the population. I think people are afraid of violence and extremist action. We tend to shun any semblance of belligerence. So I don’t think it will be welcomed.”
Rampersad said she regarded as the trade union movement’s “biggest mistake”, the decision by several labour leaders, during the walk, to label Abdulah as the country’s next prime minister.
At that point, she said, Abdulah and his counterparts may have lost all credibility as upholders of the rights of the working class.
“That whole announcement of prime minister gave it a new twist and made it seem as though it is a quest for power. It took away from that whole alleged principled position and brought in this whole notion of greed and the quest for power,” Rampersad said, adding that she had spoken to many people on the ground who suggested the Abdulah was merely interested in becoming prime minister.
“The Prime Minister alluded to that in her speech (after Abdulah’s resignation) — that it is about power and ambition — and the trade union just gave credence to that statement when they started touting him as the next prime minister of this country. But that is not going to happen. I can say that categorically.”
Noting the labour leaders’ frequent verbal attacks on the UNC — the major entity in the Partnership — Rampersad predicted that the UNC’s ethnic base will retain its core support ahead of the next general election.
“The MSJ will backfire because the UNC’s ethnic base is going to remain in tact. Those people are not going to support MSJ and COP and those are the parties that stand to lose,” she said.
A labour-based party, she reasoned, also would not augur well for the future of the People’s National Movement (PNM), another major, ethnic-based party.
“The ethnic composition of the trade union movement tends to be predominantly Afro-based. And my take is that if the PNM is behind this, then it is detrimental to the PNM too, because this would be part of the PNM’s base that they are going to lose,” said Rampersad, adding that there was a perception among some people that the PNM was behind the MSJ’s withdrawal from the Partnership.
According to Rampersad, any bid by the MSJ to become a full-fledged political entity would lead many to question the genuineness of the trade union movement generally.
“The trade union movement has a job. They have to clamour for better working conditions, wages and make demands for their workers. They are being paid to do that. But once they start to become too political, they begin to lose their credibility. And that is what is happening,” Rampersad said.
“They are becoming very political, so the population is now seeing them as losing their own focus. Their focus is to get better working conditions for their workers and now they are looking for political power and that does not go down well with the general population.” She also believes that the “constant threat” by OWTU president general Ancel Roget to shut down the country could destabilise the credibility of the labour fraternity in the minds of citizens.
“They have to be careful about the kinds of signals they are sending out there, because they are representing workers first and foremost. They are not there for political gain,” she said, adding that there has always been tensions between labour and politics.
“You cannot be arm in arm with government if you are negotiating against them and in these tough economic times when Government can only manage five percent for most unions, a lot of hard feelings are going to emerge,” Rampersad said of the MSJ’s bid for ultimate political power.
“When you get into Government you are not only representing labour. The dynamic stays. In the national pie, there is just so much that labour can get. Labour cannot get all of it, neither can they get the biggest chunk of it. This is where the tensions merge between what they want and what the Government can give.”
Weighing in on the notion of a labour government, political scientist Derek Ramsamooj also questioned the motives of labour leaders with political aspirations, claiming that some of them entered the arena merely for personal gain.
“There are numerous labour leaders who are pseudo-socialists and have adopted a pragmatic, capilatist approach to life,” he told Sunday Newsday on Wednesday .
“So while they may talk about representing labour, we have a history in which individuals have used the labour movement to manouvre themselves into political leadership.”
Ramsamooj referred to Panday’s contribution to the labour sector during his tenure as prime minister from 1995 to 2001.
He said, “One of the most prominent labour leaders who became prime minister was Basdeo Panday and we must ask ourselves, when he assumed the office of Prime Minister, did he honour the wishes of the labour platform? Did he honour the wishes of the people who supported him when he was a trade union leader. What did he do for the workers of Caroni?”
Using the example of late labour leader George Weekes and others, including current Labour Minister Errol Mc Leod, a veteran trade unionist and former MSJ leader, Ramsamooj argued that there was hardly any correlation between aspirants of the labour movement becoming holders of political office and fulfilling any mandate that represents the working interest.
“We have numerous occasions in which labour has participated in government and has done absolutely very little for their fellow workers,” he said. Referring to the operational aspects of the MSJ’s attempt to seek political office, Ramsamooj said the MSJ had not put in the public domain any semblance of a national agenda.
However, he suggested that their modus operandi must include a recommendation to review the salaries of public sector workers against the backdrop of productivity levels.
“There is a fundamental difference between fighting for better conditions for workers and that of managing the economy,” Ramsamooj said.
“So one of the major areas that they could put in the public domain would be what strategies would they use to improve the productivity level of public sector workers in a period of economic recession.”
He said the biggest challenge in shaping the governance framework in TT required a changing of established mechanisms which determined the functioning of the public sector and reform of the industrial relations climate, particularly in terms of the role of trade unions in an evolving economy and the utilisation of patronage by the State to ensure political influence.Ramsamooj said on numerous occasions, the electorate has swung their support to different political parties in search of change and transformation.
“But all of the parties, so far, seem imprisoned by the mechanisms that run the public service, by the attitudes and behavioural patterns of the trade unions and by the unwillingness to reduce the level of patronage offered by the State,” he said.
“Any political entity that wants to bring better governance to Trinidad and Tobago must be willing to change these elements. What we do not need is a bigger government. We need a more efficient government.”
Like Rampersad, political analyst Dr Winford James noted the potential for the MSJ’s political ambitions to be thwarted by the fact that citizens have traditionally voted along racial lines as opposed to the perceived concerns of the working class.
Recalling that the DLP was comprised mostly of Indo-Trinidadians, James said Panday later joined members of the DAC and Tapia House to form the NAR.
“There was a series of events that eventually resulted in the collapse of the NAR and the regrouping of the ULF constituency. At the heart of that regrouping wasn’t the labour ideas that Panday espoused but the ethnic dimension,” said James, a UWI lecturer in the Department of Education.
“So what we have today (in the UNC) is a broadening of the original DLP and ULF into a party that represents mostly Indo-aspirations. So, too, has the PNM been a party that represents the aspirations Afro-Trinidadians and Tobagonians. There are two large constituencies in Trinidad and Tobago and you have the rest. “Those are ethnic constituencies. You have a politics that has resulted from the ethnic configuration of those constituencies, not that they don’t have an attempt made in both camps to attract others. The core constituencies remain and it is aligned with the demography of the country.”
Saying that the MSJ joined the Partnership because the party did not feel it could have contested the 2010 general election on its own, James said the MSJ has realised that the politics of the Partnership was not dissimilar from that of the PNM “and because they have not seen any attempts to make the kind of change that they would like, then it is time to pull out”.
“But they don’t want to pull out of politics because they believe labour has to be represented. The problem they face is that since many of the people in labour share the two constituencies, how can they win them completely over to themselves?” he asked.
James said the MSJ was also confronted with a dilemma faced by both the PNM and UNC — how do they attract those who are not committed to any of the other major political parties?
Of the MSJ’s quest for ultimate political power, James said, “The MSJ, because it has seen how the PNM behaved and how the UNC is behaving, has decided that they are going to build their own house. But they are building a house in a political space that is crowded, where the major political parties have their constituencies. “They have to do a lot of work to win over large portions of those two constituencies and they also have to win over large numbers of the uncommited. I imagine that they will want to do this by the next election. But the question is, ‘Can they do it and if they can do it, what are the tools they are going to use to do it?”
Nevertheless, James is maintaining a wait-and-see approach.
“These are early days,” he said.
“We have got to see what work they think they have to do. We have got to have a sense of the shape of that work. We have got to see how they are going to go into the various constituencies and find leaders to represent those constituencies. We want to see how they are going to build a labour party.” He added, “It is exciting times but we do not know what they are going to do because they have not spelt it out. In that context, we have to wait and see. They will have to be persuasive in converting the population to the new way of doing things. I don’t wish to speculate. I can only make an educated guess based on our political history.