ON March 15 I was invited to, and attended, a meeting held under the auspices of The Foundation for Politics and Leadership. The Foundation seems to be an organisation controlled by Timothy Hamel-Smith, which has been used on a number of occasions in the past as a somewhat non-partisan forum for meetings and symposia organised by, or on behalf of, the Congress of the People (COP).
The meeting last Saturday which was billed as a conversation on “Building Institutions for Democracy”, was exactly of this nature. Sitting at the head table were Winston Dookeran, Patrick Watson and Timothy Hamel-Smith all three of whom are well known figures in the leadership of the COP.
And, in the audience, there were several readily recognisable COP stalwarts and activists including Vernon De Lima, Selby Wilson, and, according to the press reports, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan. But although there is little question that this was a COP event, it was an event with a difference.
The first speaker was Prof Patrick Watson who, after declaring that he was speaking in his individual academic capacity, talked about the structure of electoral politics in Trinidad with particular reference to what he referred to as the “Third constituency”.
The third constituency for Prof Watson was a loosely aggregated segment of the electorate which had no fixed political affiliation but which, for the most part, was defined by its opposition to the two main parties which were based on ethnic affiliation. Watson estimated that the size of this segment of the electorate was about 25 per cent of the total electorate.
Prof Watson’s concern was not so much to analyse the structure of the third constituency as it was to note that when this constituency was moved to coalesce behind a political party it could and had in the past played a significant role in the outcome of elections. In this context he cited the votes obtained by the ONR in 1981 and the votes obtained by the COP in 2007 and 2010.
He went on to point out however that in both 1981 and 2007, notwithstanding the full support of the third constituency, neither the ONR nor the COP respectively emerged from the elections with any seats. Prof Watson’s conclusion was that the first-past-the-post system discriminated against this third constituency gaining representation for itself in the Parliament and that fairness and justice dictated that the country should move to some form of proportional representation (PR)
As a matter of interest let me note here that Timothy Hamel-Smith’s address later that afternoon which was devoted to constitutional change issues was dominated by his advocacy (with accompanying charts) of a mixed system of PR.
But what was striking about Patrick Watson’s address was not his call for PR, which was neither new nor novel, but rather his very clear and emphatic statement that although the COP had won the allegiance of the third constituency in 2007 and again in 2010, it had now lost that allegiance and there was no chance in hell that the constituency would support the COP, whether it presented itself as part of the People’s Partnership or on its own, in the general elections of 2015.
What was intriguing to me about that statement was not that it was made. It was a position which I, as well as other political commentators, have asserted for a while now. What however certainly surprised me was the fact that the statement was made by a well-known COP activist in front of an essentially COP audience.
It was only when former political leader of the COP and the man who is reverently referred to by COP activists as the “Founding Father” Winston Dookeran was well into his address that I was able to put two and two together and understand what was really happening there that evening.
Mr Dookeran, told his audience that his entire political career was devoted to the task of “getting the politics right”. He reminded his audience that “at Mid Centre Mall in February 19, 2006, at a political rally, I faced hostility and boos from the crowd when I made the call to get our politics right.”
He then went on to say, “Little did I realise how difficult and dangerous that journey would have been. It took an election defeat in 2007 for me to begin to understand “what is power in politics”. In 2010, I evoked the concept of the burden of leadership and engaged in the fix-it election of 2010.”
He then went on to outline what he referred to as “some aspects of the election formula which must be adhered to”. These were as follows: “Politics and political institutions must embrace political differences in a society; the party system must discover the high-energy politics by confronting the ideology and ethnic cleavages in our society; and the basic requirement of democratic governance is the full public inclusion in the electoral process.”
He concluded his address by saying that, “Ultimately, it is the trust in leadership that energises sustainable political and societal development process…” and assuring his audience of his resolve to continue working with them to get the politics right”.
Long before he was finished speaking I understood that what I was witnessing were the first small steps in the crafting of a new political narrative which its creators fervently hope would allow them to extricate themselves from the disaster which is the COP and resurrect themselves in some new credible incarnation.
It is in the nature of politicians to strive desperately against the odds and who is to say that this faction of the COP cannot succeed. But I would remind Dookeran et al that the reason the COP has lost the third constituency is not because, as chairman Seepersad-Bachan puts it, of “the current relationship in the coalition and the way that coalition operates”.
Rather they lost the third constituency because that constituency has recognised that when offered a choice between office and integrity, for all their talk of getting the politics right, they settled for the mess of pottage and sold their integrity.
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and
the wider Caribbean