Each time a new political party is formed my hope rises that we may be able to escape from ethnic voting and concentrate on developing an equitable society. In the past my hopes have been soon dashed. Recently my hope was raised with the formation of the Congress of the People. Then before the last election there was further promise with the formation of the People's Partnership. Like many people I have become disillusioned by the activities of that alliance and so must now cling to the glimmer of hope that is evident from the principled stand taken by the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) in parting company with the People's Partnership when that organisation was so obviously not living up to its promises.
Some persons have expressed doubt that a party principally supported by the labour movement can succeed. This is surprising to me when the political movements in this country, as well as the rest of the Caribbean, grew out of labour movements. Soon we will be celebrating 50 years as an independent country and many of the other Caribbean countries, former British colonies, will similarly celebrate half a century of independence. Have we so soon forgotten Butler in Trinidad and Tobago, Adams in Barbados, Manley and Bustamante in Jamaica, Gairy in Grenada, Bradshaw in St Kitts/Nevis, Joshua in St Vincent and like others?
These were all labour movement leaders who then formed political parties and were in the forefront of the movement for independence. More recently in this country Basdeo Panday started his political career in the labour movement and tried to mount a united labour front.
It is important to note that though these movements fought for the betterment of the workers their efforts were of interest to a much larger section of the society in the fact that (apart from a small minority who sort only self-interest) most persons under colonial rule wanted independence. Further, the choice of name for the Movement for Social Justice implies an interest in the society at large. It is my view that statements to the effect that a political party is advancing the interest of the whole society can never be valid since the interests of all sectors of the society cannot be the same.
To suggest that the interests of our millionaires are the same as those living below the poverty line is just so much nonsense. It is the interest of the millionaire to have a low tax rate so that he/she can become richer, although he/she may veil this by quoting economic theory that holds that by a low tax allows for more investment and growth in the economy leading to more employment; and that some of the wealth will "trickle down" to the poor. On the other hand it is in the interest of the poor that the rich be taxed to move towards social equity.
This is particularly relevant in a country that gains the largest proportion of its income from a natural resource. In a country that gains its wealth from manufacturing or financial or other business services it may be argued that it is through the efforts of entrepreneurs and captains of industry that the country may become wealthy and so such persons deserve the lion's share of the wealth of the country.
However, it should be noted that these industries could not function without workers no matter how much automation may be introduced. But in the case of Trinidad and Tobago the largest proportion of our income comes from oil and natural gas which is dominated by foreign investors and indeed it is evident that the affluence of many persons in this country depends on business activity generated indirectly from that source. Even the manufacturing sector depends on foreign exchange earned by the oil and gas sectors.
With this background I conclude that all political parties, while they state that they work in the interests of everyone in the country, undoubtedly all have sectional interests. In Trinidad and Tobago it is our misfortune that up to now these interests have been dominated by ethnic allegiances; however I would argue that within these groupings there is superimposed a business (conservative) rather than a labour interest. I would also argue that labour parties have a greater interest in the wellbeing of a larger number of citizens than conservative parties and that a labour party is more likely to lead us out of the ethnic divide.
My view of the role of labour parties has been influenced by my experience after World War II as a young student in England. The social services which are still predominant in the UK, even under a conservative government, were introduced by a Labour government under Clement Attlee in the 1940s.
As an example, the health service is of major importance in the UK and similarly in Canada and conservative governments in power in those countries would not think of altering the health service. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the citizens in UK and Canada, particularly senior citizens, benefit greatly from efficient health services paid for by the state.
I am thus putting my hope on the MSJ to lead us out of the present morass into which we seem to descend deeper daily. In my view many of the original labour parties in the Caribbean are now "labour" only in name and so we must start again with a genuine labour party which is what I understand the MSJ to be. However, I am in support of the nomenclature (Movement for Social Justice) for I still believe in ideals (in spite of our current materialism) and social justice is an ideal that we must strive to attain.
In my next article I shall discuss the future of the political party now supported by labour—the Movement for Social Justice.
• John Spence is professor
emeritus, UWI. He also served as an Independent Senator