Tools

Parties and democracy in T&T

By Selwyn Ryan

Some 57 years ago, Eric Williams authored one of the most significant political pamphlets ever to be written by a Trinidadian. The pamphlet was titled The Case For Party Politics in Trinidad and Tobago.

This pamphlet was important not only for what it said, but also for what it signified. It was saying to those who stood silently, as if mesmerised, that the time had come to create a new political instrument to take Trinidad and Tobago from the colonial donkey track to the national highway.

Dr Williams was not the first person to introduce party politics into Trinidad and Tobago as some claim. That is a convenient myth. Before the PNM, there were many others—the Trinidad Working Man's Association, the Party of Political Progress Groups, the Trinidad Labour Party, the British Empire Home Rule and Workers Party, The Trinidad Socialist Party, the United Front, and The People's Democratic Party, just to name a few.

What Williams was seeking to introduce was a disciplined, ethnically diversified party, one which differed from the "one man and his dog" formations that had dotted the political landscape of Trinidad and Tobago. His argument was that those mini political formations were not genuine parties as he understood the term, and were not adequate to address the problems that lay ahead. The party that he envisaged was a movement, a rally of all for all, a mobilisation cutting across race, religion, class and colour.

Williams's approach to parties was Burkean. Parties for Edmund Burke, the British Member of Parliament for Bristol, were expressions of the organised political opinion of a community or sections of it.

Hence, before one could have party politics, one had to have a public opinion to organise.

The organisation of that public opinion demanded first of all, an educated public. Williams did in fact seek to create that opinion by undertaking a series of public lectures during the late 50s and early 60s on a variety of subjects at the University of Woodford Square and its "Colleges" in Arima, Harris Promenade, and San Fernando.

Our task is to look back at what was achieved by Williams and his disciples. What is the legacy of the PNM in the construction of democracy in Trinidad and Tobago?

What did Williams mean by the term?

What did it mean for him in practice?

We will also be seeking to determine the extent to which other parties emerged to fill the gaps that were left unfilled by the PNM.

We will be considering too whether what is now needed is a new party system to replace the two-party variant to which PNM politics gave rise, or whether there is now need to write a new version of the classic document, perhaps titled The Case Against Two-Party Politics in Trinidad and Tobago, one called A Case for Coalitional Politics in Trinidad and Tobago, or one called the Politics of Deadlock in Trinidad and Tobago.

The arrival of the PNM on the political scene gave rise to the appearance of several parties which sought to imitate it in terms of organisational principle and even ideology.

The most significant of these were the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) which began its life in 1958 as a federal party led by Alexander Bustamante of Jamaica, and the Liberal Party which drew most of its support from the white and off-white gentry.

The two parties were however never able to match the discipline for which the PNM became well known.

For the most part, the PNM represented the Afro-creole masses, the mixed middle-class, the Indian Christians, and the urban Muslims, and that there was need to establish a corresponding mass-based party for the Hindu element.

In between the tribally based parties, there emerged small parties which sought to represent the working class and the urban based university educated intelligentsia. I am referring here to the Workers and Farmers Party (WFP), the National Joint Action Committee ( NJAC) and The Tapia House Movement.

These mini-parties disavowed ethnicity and maximum doctor leaders in principle if not in practice. All at one time or another had sharp disagreements over leadership. The WFP tried to solve its internal democracy problem by refusing to designate any one person as leader.

This democratic gesture failed and gave rise to confusion.

Tapia also split over the issue of who should be the Doctor Leader.

There were also sharp disagreements as to whether the party should be involved in conventional politics or not.

NJAC also had leadership and ideological issues. The party, like Tapia, had sharp disagreements as to whether the group should engage in electoral politics perhaps in association with the ACDC. One wing argued that conventional politics would corrupt and contaminate the movement while the other believed that they should seek to capture political power as conventional parties did. In the end, NJAC splintered into a multiplicity of ideological groupings ranging from guerrilla activity in the hills to Black Muslim elements on the plains of Mucurapo. We note however that the principal issue being agitated was the widening and not the deepening of democracy. It was a struggle to capture state power.

The 1970s witnessed the emergence of several "newish" parties, all bent on taking power away from the hegemonic PNM. Among them were the Action Committee of Democratic Citizens (ACDC) which later morphed into the Democratic Action Congress, a breakaway group from the PNM led by ANR Robinson.

The Democratic Labour Party also had its leadership issues.

The party broke into two wings, one which retained the original name—The Democratic Labour Party—with the other calling itself the Social Democratic Labour Party. Both sought to maintain control of the Indo-based elements in the society and also to expand to include the detribalised elements. In the end, both DLPs lost the mandate of heaven, so to speak, and remerged as the United Labour Front which brought together radical trade union elements in the sugar and oil industries. The ULF had in fact succeeded in what had long been a goal of radical working class leadership elements. As we shall see, the leadership of the ULF was riven by ethnic, regional, ideological and personal factions, and never succeeded in presenting the country with a credible challenge to the PNM.

The failure of the various movements and parties to present the country with a credible alternative to the PNM was a matter of great concern, particularly to those elements who were of the view that the electoral predominance of the PNM was politically unhealthy for the political order. Democracy, they argued, was being subverted by a number of factors all of which reinforced the other, and prevented the deepening of democracy.

The first "fire wall" that kept party democracy in thrall was the demography of the society which served to concentrate the Indo Trinidadian community in central and most of the south of Trinidad, leaving the Afro creole element concentrated in the urban areas and along the East-West Corridor. Of equal importance as a constraint on democracy was the first-past-the post electoral system (FPP) which served to over represent majority parties and under represent minority parties. Those negatively affected felt the only way to deal with the issue was to substitute proportional representation for FPP. This proposal was promoted by groups which appeared before the Wooding Constitutional Commission which sat between 1971 to 1974. The advocates of PR were however never concerned with internal party democracy.

Their prime concern was to capture the State and with ethnic succession.

Author's note: Excerpt of address given on occasion of 50th Anniversary of Bicameralism in Trinidad and Tobago: To be concluded

This content requires the latest Adobe Flash Player and a browser with JavaScript enabled. Click here for a free download of the latest Adobe Flash Player.

Express Poll

Do you believe the issue of race was a consideration in the Constitution reform proposals?

  • Yes
  • No

Commentaries Headlines

Weather

More Weather