One of the things that has always disturbed me with politics in Bermuda is the lack of a clear and constant political ideology. The adage for most Western democracies is that you need to hold the centre ground to win and hold on to government.
In most jurisdictions with a Westminster system of government, you typically see a centre-right political party that espouses conservative values, such as the importance of family units, capitalism and faith, to name just a few. In turn you would expect to see a centre-left party espousing social democratic values such as the welfare state, income redistribution and unionism. Of course in larger jurisdictions, you will have entities at the extreme of each end of the political spectrum, from communists to fascists and everyone in between. Generally, however, no matter the Western democracy, the winner will normally end up being one of the parties just left or just right-of-centre.
In Bermuda, we have two political entities that have been wildly inconsistent in respect of typical political “left versus right” of Centre ideology, especially given their respective names. On the one hand, you have the Progressive Labour Party. An outside observer would immediately assume, given the word “labour” features so prominently in its title, that this is a true labour party following a consistent Left or left-of-centre ideology. On the other side, you have the One Bermuda Alliance, which an outsider would assume is either a centrist/liberal party, given the name “alliance” — rather than, for example, conservative — or perhaps a right-of-centre conservative party, since there is already a party with the labour namesake.
Both of those general assumptions would be wrong. For the purposes of today, however, I will discuss the PLP, saving the OBA for subsequent writing.
The PLP is, it seems, a true labour party in name only. Labour parties typically stand for, in no particular order: equality for minority groups, accessible and quality public services, workers’ rights, nationalisation, strong central government, liberalisation of immigration and government intervention in the economy, which inevitably leads to debt accrual. I argue that almost none of the aforementioned have been demonstrated by the PLP leadership on a consistent or coherent basis in the past six months and certainly not in its previous 14 years of governance between 1998 and 2012.
Who could have imagined a labour party leadership espousing anti-immigration sentiments and a nationalist tagline of “Bermuda for Bermudians”? Compare this with the recently defunct far Right party in the United Kingdom, Britain First, whose slogan was “Taking Our Country Back” and Trump’s slogan, “Making America Great Again” — all of which are arguably jingoistic.
Or, who could have imagined a labour party leadership against same-sex marriage? Or a labour party leadership that cancels public services? Or a labour party leadership that presided over a public education system that has fewer students in it than at almost any time in its history, with the proportionally highest enrolment in the private system ever? Or a labour party leadership that passed a Bill during its last time in government to end the 60:40 ownership rules in certain sectors? Or a labour party leadership that embraced a Bill on tourism incentives giving tax incentives to business?
The record shows that the PLP leadership’s social stances are far closer to a political party on the side farther to the Right than a centre-right party — perhaps closer to the nationalistic Republican Tea Party — while its economic stances many times have been economic liberalism rather than typical labour economic policy.
Cabinet ministers that openly fight against minority rights are not emulating the social-inclusiveness messages of any labour party of which I am aware and their anti-immigration slogans are far more representative of an insular, protectionist view more common in states with high nationalistic fervour. The only real and absolute constant is that it purports to be the friend of the working man. There are glimpses of that desire, given its intent to interfere in business through the Cost of Living Commission. This most recent action could also be seen simply as populism at its cynical best.
What seems undeniable is that the PLP leadership seems to suffer from a multiple political personality disorder.
One political personality is conservative-minded and faith-based, with anti-minority rights sentiment and pro-nationalist, anti-immigrant beliefs. Another more far-Right type political personality is seen behind a mask of anonymity on certain blogs, which would make grown men blush. Another political personality is the left-wing more socialist part of the PLP leadership, which is reflected in the People’s Campaign, proposing workforce equity, income equality and other socialist policies — albeit tinged with anti-immigration sentiments. And we should not leave out the political personality that is a moderate, more liberal-minded one, which is pragmatic and recognises the importance of international business to Bermuda. Sadly, that moderate personality is often drowned out by the other acerbic personalities.
Perhaps the saying the PLP leadership “is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” is most applicable here. This applies not just to the leadership as a collective, but to individual ministers within their own portfolios. This is why on the one hand a minister can attend a radio show and make disparaging remarks about the America’s Cup to one audience and then just a short time later laud the organisational skills and success of the America’s Cup to a business group, and set wheels in motion to emulate its organisational structure.
Or a minister to one day support same-sex marriage and then be the sponsor of a Bill to reverse it. Or a minister in charge of providing public transport allowing the cancellation of bus routes servicing schoolchildren.
Anyone can agree that the political personality of the Progressive Labour Party leadership is definitely not a strict labour political personality. It really is a populist party leadership, with ideas cobbled together based on the loudest voice, which changes with the direction of the wind.
So what binds all these multiple political personalities together? These diametrically opposed political ideologies? These multifaceted, incoherently linked policies? These populist ideals?
Well, I shall leave the drawing of that inescapable conclusion to you.
•Michael Fahy is a former Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Tourism, Transport and Municipalities, and Junior Minister of Finance under the One Bermuda Alliance government