A test for Mia’s leadership
However you look at it, the current crisis in the opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) stemming from the bitter public squabble in the stronghold constituency of Christ Church West, is ultimately an inescapable test for Mia Mottley’s leadership of the party and her aspirations to be the next prime minister of Barbados.
She can emerge from this crisis, depending on how the issue is finally settled, either smelling like a rose with considerably improved public ratings or, alternatively, being seen as a big loser with a weakened grip on the BLP leadership from which she was previously toppled ahead of the last general election.
It is therefore in Miss Mottley’s interest, even at this eleventh hour, to push for a satisfactory outcome which allows the parties involved to walk away with their dignity intact but which, more importantly, helps to create an environment conducive for internal healing to begin.
Although considerable water may have already flowed under the bridge, a window of opportunity still exists for an amicable settlement. It is never over until it is over. However, achieving this outcome calls for a demonstration of political maturity on all sides, a softening of positions, and a commitment to compromise in the party’s interest.
As party leader, Miss Mottley must seize the initiative and set a conciliatory tone. As the first move, she should extend an olive branch to Dr Agard by ensuring the disciplinary charges against her are withdrawn. Next, she should cancel the National Council meeting planned for this Sunday to determine possible action against the Christ Church West MP.
Both steps should come with a strict proviso: “Let us sit down as mature adults one last time and peacefully resolve to thrash out this issue among ourselves, in the interest of the party, and away from the limelight. If you are unable to do so, then as party leader I will have no choice but to act decisively.”
By so doing, Miss Mottley would not only be placing the ball in Dr Agard’s and her constituency branch’s court but would also be giving Barbadians some insight into the kind of prime minister she would be. In turn, the response of Dr Agard and the constituency branch would be an indication of their commitment to compromise and arriving at an amicable settlement.
As it stands, public opinion seems more to be on the side of Dr Agard. Based on the information they have received, primarily via the media, many Barbadians seem to be of the view that Dr Agard is being “unfaired”. Politics is largely about perception. As a seasoned politician, Miss Mottley is undoubtedly aware that perception, though not necessarily always based on fact, has a strange way of becoming truth. Barbadians, by nature, are fair-minded. In any dispute, they tend to side with and be sympathetic to the party which seems to be at a disadvantage. Miss Mottley should not overlook this fact.
The dispute in Christ Church West has its genesis in a reported breakdown in the working relationship between Dr Agard and the constituency branch. Repairing this relationship is crucial as, in the Barbadian model of political practice, the support of the constituency branch is vital to the success of the sitting MP. It is his or her army of foot soldiers. There is no escaping that fact.
Understanding the intricacies of politics always requires a level of open-mindedness. Adopting this approach, I refuse to go along with the suggestion being made by Dr Agard’s critics that she is primarily at fault. Undoubtedly, she has contributed in some way. However, in every dispute, there are always two or more protagonists. One strikes the match while the other often fans the flame.
From evidence in the public domain, there was clearly division in the branch that preceded Dr Agard’s tenure. She, therefore, inherited a Pandora’s Box. Listening to some branch members speak, it is quite evident that the towering figure of Sir Henry Forde, the constituency’s first parliamentary representative, continues to loom large even though he retired more than 10 years ago.
The BLP branch seems to have a deep inner yearning for any political successor, including Dr Agard in this case, to be cast almost exactly in Sir Henry’s image. That is impossible. Every person is different and will bring his or her own style to bear. Barbadian politics is populated by a lot of people who take the position that it always must be their way or the highway.
Besides, being familiar with the political culture at the constituency branch level, having spent many years in the belly of the whale, I am well aware of the tendency of some members to want to control the MP almost to the point of making him or her their hostage. If he or she resists, the poor MP is then subjected to a clandestine campaign of undermining in which upset branch members stab him or her in the back at every opportunity. Could this be a factor in Christ Church West?
Needless to say, if Dr Agard is unable to repair the relationship with the constituency branch, her future as the BLP representative is in doubt. That, unfortunately, is how the system works, but her loss, in my view, would be a tragedy. Looking on from the sidelines as a professional schooled in modern political practice, it is my view that Dr Agard brings some admirable qualities to politics. Indeed, she seems to be about a new politics – to which I am also committed – which is relevant to the present time.
Achieving reconciliation should be Miss Mottley’s primary objective. It may be difficult, yes, but there is hardly any human problem which cannot be solved through effective communication, determination and negotiation. The key lies in finding common ground as the basis of agreement by drawing attention to the benefits of cooperation to advance mutual interests, instead of dwelling on issues which are the source of division and conflict.
As an unapologetic defender of free speech, I have a major problem with the disciplinary charges against Dr Agard. Free speech is guaranteed to everyone under the Constitution of Barbados and no one can be deprived of this fundamental right, except with his or her consent. The charges against Dr Agard seem designed to punish her for speaking to the media in exercise of her right to free speech.
For me, free speech is sacrosanct. I may not always agree with positions some people take on issues but I will fervently defend their right to express those views. As John Milton, the blind 17th Century English poet and pamphleteer, argued in the Areopagitica, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
Calling off this weekend’s disciplinary proceedings against Dr Agard is necessary to set the stage for internal healing and repairing the BLP’s image which has taken a beating these past few weeks. A display of such magnanimity by Miss Mottley would be an important step towards reassuring and giving Barbadians confidence that the BLP, under her leadership, is indeed ready to make the transition from opposition to government, whenever the date of the next general election is announced.
Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email: reudongmx.com