Sunday, January 21, 2018

In critical condition


Mark Fraser

 Measured in one poll against three other political parties, the Congress of the People (COP) and its “New Politics” ran last with one per cent support, less than the margin of error. Jack Warner’s Independent Labour Party (ILP) polled nine per cent support, the UNC and PNM divided the balance. 

Most likely, voters lack interest in the COP because of the discord between what the party thinks of itself and what a voter sees in it. Without solving that issue the strategic work of COP consultant Ray Larson can come down to one question: where to bury what remains of the COP?  

Ray Larson is of course a well regarded and rising Canadian political consultant. He is a pioneer in harnessing data and creating micro-targeting strategies for segments of voters. It is a skill that Larson’s political leader Justin Trudeau will value in Canada’s 2015 federal elections, but with negligible support remaining, Larson is overkill for the COP. One per cent support for a declining party is not worth Larson’s airfare from Canada.

The COP’s decline is not surprising. The party was born out of harsh conflict with the UNC that saw several UNC senators heading off to join Winston Dookeran’s new party. But, four years later the party found itself in a pact with the UNC, conscious of its 2007 general election misfire, the weakened position of the PNM, and, based on the 2007 general election results, the likelihood that a combined UNC and COP vote and some shift from the PNM, could land the parties in government. And so it did.

But, as I wrote early in the Partnership’s term the COP’s biggest challenge was always going to be the obvious disconnect with its “New Politics” ambitions and the UNC’s notoriety. I anticipated an early exit by some individuals, but underestimated the willingness to sacrifice the political ideal. 

I also wrote before the mid-term that, “Perhaps the biggest challenge for the COP in this rickety politics is that while it is currently credited with a few seats in the House of Representatives, when it seeks to enforce coalition agreements, it cannot guarantee that its own MPs will stay the course or support the COP in a dispute with the UNC. And given the party’s impotence in affecting the national agenda, the party constantly risks the erosion of its much vaunted political support.” 

And I wrote, “Across the board the PM is the great dispenser and the greater enforcer. The COP’s claim to independence falls flat in a system in which the party is a beneficiary more than anything else. Apart from his post as leader of the COP, the COP leader commands no other space without the goodwill of the PM.”

So this is where the COP has remained. While the party meets regularly to brainstorm, and remains attracted to the idea of “New Politics”, the party has itself subsumed that agenda to the bare grab for political control by the necessary means. 

There has been no point in the Partnership’s term where the COP has shown itself to be in the ascendancy. It has been on the life support of the UNC, and in the 2013 local government elections the party’s decline from 2007 was evident.

This is the starting point for Ray Larson. The COP is no force worthy of its own manifesto. Its concessions for the sake of a shot at government have gutted its brand. Its impotence as a coalition member is a feature of the UNC dominance as it is a factor in the COP leadership problems. 

If the COP is to survive, it must be prepared to stand alone, rebuild, and most important, to patiently stake its claim. But to do so, the COP must campaign against itself, because for all the sins of decades of bad PNM and UNC politics, the COP is complicit in at least part of it. The problem is that the COP is complicit in the most recent part, fashioned even after it broke from the ribcage of the UNC and created its own form, only to refit itself into the substance of UNC politics. 

On its own, the COP hit its high point in the 2007 general election. That does not say much because the party won no seat in that election. But, it pulled 22.71 per cent of the votes cast, 46,000 fewer than the UNC which won 15 seats with its 194,000 votes. The PNM won 26 seats with its 300,000 votes.

After its initial showing in 2007, the COP won seats in the 2010 general elections on account of the head-to-head contests with the PNM, facilitated by the People’s Partnership arrangement. In those elections the COP did not face the UNC in any constituency and was able to do better, than 2007 and win some seats. 

Its first local government elections wins in 2010 were also facilitated by the Partnership and the head-to-head contests with the PNM. In those elections the COP contested 50 electoral districts and won 48 per cent of its contests, ending up with 24 electoral districts and control of two municipal bodies. The UNC did much better winning 89 per cent of its battles, and ending with 74 electoral districts.

But 2013 proved to be different for the COP. With the declining popularity of the UNC, the resurgence of the PNM, and the entry of the ILP, the COP moved from control of two local government corporations to controlling none. The party moved from 24 electoral districts to three, two in the Tunapuna/Piarco Corporation and one in the City of San Fernando.  Even with a combination of the COP and ILP votes in the districts in which they contested against each other and the PNM, the COP would only have won the City of San Fernando. 

The COP’s problems were clearly more than the vote-splitting potential of the ILP. The COP is an inherently conflicted political party, anxious and ambitious. But it has run out of time and luck. Should we discuss the burial arrangements?     

• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer