The ugly image of politicians
If a random poll of Barbadians was to be conducted today to determine if there is widespread yearning for more “good” men and women to step forward and offer themselves for public service through direct involvement in elective politics, the answer would be resoundingly “yes”.
Such a finding would not be surprising. The current image of Barbadian politicians is rather ugly, to say the least; and has been so for quite some time.
“If I want to get rich quickly, I only have to become MP,” sang Red Plastic Bag some 30 years ago in his patriotic calypso Bim, which remains
immensely popular, especially at Independence time.
Such sentiments –– observed back then and even more so today –– blatantly portray politicians as a self-serving bunch who seek public office, driven not so much by any strong motivation to contribute first and foremost to bettering the lives of fellow citizens, but more by a desire to use this privileged position as a passport to riches for themselves.
This perception is more widespread and entrenched today than in 1984 when Bim debuted. Today, when the average Barbadian thinks of politicians, “good” is an adjective that hardly ever comes to mind. Instead, “incompetent”, “arrogant”, “lying”, “unscrupulous” are among the most commonly used descriptions.
Entitlement to what is widely regarded as an overly generous parliamentary pension after serving only two terms is also a major public peeve. Whereas the average Barbadian has to work just over 30 years to qualify for a full Government pension, the fact that a politician is so entitled after serving less than ten is widely seen as unreasonable and unfair.
Politicians in Barbados were not always so regarded. Beginning at some point in the 1980s onwards, their public perception gradually changed from generally positive to overwhelmingly negative. Up to the 1980s, politicians were generally respected, and seen as making a personal sacrifice for the national good and committed to advancing the people’s interest.
That certainly is how politicians of the era of the Right Excellent Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow were regarded. That certainly too is the memory which I have of my first MP the late Reynold St Clair Weekes, who represented St Philip South until 1981. Which explains why their memory, especially Barrow’s, continue to evoke generally positive feelings among Barbadians.
Ask yourself this searching question: how many politicians from the post-Adams/Barrow era can you say the same about? Some, indeed, are largely forgotten as if they were never there. Perception, however, is often not a reflection of truth. It can have the effect, unfortunately, of causing a whole basket of good apples to be regarded as bad just because one of two were rotten.
Yet, perception is reality for most people. It becomes their truth. So even though perception is not always an accurate and fair depiction of most politicians, it is the truth, all the same, for the average person who is easily influenced. What is amazing, though, is that politicians do not seem to recognize the need to tell their stories more effectively, to emphasize the good that they do to help clean up their image and rebuild public confidence. Such would require deliberate strategic communications interventions.
Politicians happily seem to be burying their heads in the sand even though their overall negative perception is undermining their relationship with the general public whose interests they are supposed to serve. Indeed, when some persons make ridiculous demands of politicians, like asking them to pay utility bills or seeking payment for votes at election time, it is their perception of politicians as “users” which is a factor in this behaviour.
There are voters out there who take the view that since politicians enter public life to get rich but need their support to get there and really do not care about them, they could as well pressure them to spend some of their money granting personal favours. What such persons fail to appreciate is that if politicians do become corrupt, they may have had a direct hand.
Unless the politician has really deep pockets, the money spent on personal favours in the constituency has to come from somewhere. An MP’s salary, even if he or she is a minister, would never be sufficient to satisfy all the demands. Which explains why some politicians have “sponsors” who quietly operate in the background.
Often from the private sector, they provide resources which are used to satisfy various demands.
However, as nothing ever comes for free, there is an obvious expectation of rewards of one kind or another –– a case of you scratch my back and I will scratch yours in return. The rewards are often in the form of Government contracts for the supply of goods or services, awarded in some cases through the subtle exercise of political influence.
Cynicism about politicians is not confined to Barbados. There is evidence of its existence elsewhere in the Caribbean and beyond the region in the wider world. The cynicism extends to the political process and is reflected, for example, in a current crisis of confidence in political parties and the institution of government which are seen as not responsive enough to current needs.
It is also seen in the growing number of persons who refuse to vote because they believe it will not make a difference to their lives.
A paper presented at a regional workshop on politics in Trinidad in 2005 made this observation: “Public opinion has not been kind to political parties in the Caribbean. Talk radio and newspaper editorials rail against corruption, nepotism and racketeering perpetuated by parties in government. They lament that their leaders are more concerned about keeping (or taking) tightly held political power rather than tackling the thankless task of improving education, housing and health care.”
As is quite evident, “good” is an adjective hardly associated with politicians today. Which explains public yearning for the involvement of more “good” people. “Good” refers to having integrity, competence, a moral compass, civility, putting the public interest before self-interest and saying what needs to be said instead of what the people would like to hear.
From my own political experience, there are more “good” politicians than “bad” ones. It is just that the indiscretions of a few “bad” ones tend to divert attention from the “good” ones and also help to mould public perception. Such is human nature. Which explains why the “good” ones need to be more effective in telling their stories using a strategic communications approach.
Attracting more “good” people to politics, though welcome, will always be a difficult proposition unless the current dog-eat-dog culture is reformed through the introduction of more civility, for example. Current politicians, if they are serious about cleaning up their image, must take responsibility for bringing this about.
Not many “good” people would want to come into an environment where they are at risk of contamination and could end up being perceived, not as different, but as the same typical, reviled politician.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)