The ULP at 25
Last Sunday the governing Unity Labour Party (ULP) gave Vincentians a clear signal that it is going to be very busy over the next year when it celebrated its 25th anniversary with an election-style rally at the decommissioned E.T. Joshua airport at Arnos Vale. Not only did it revert to its by-now familiar practice of providing entertainment via an internationally-renowned artiste, in this case Busy Signal, but its tone and pronouncements gave a clear indication that 2020 will be a busy year indeed.
Achieving a quarter of a century of existence is an achievement for any political party in this politically volatile region. That the ULP has enjoyed 18 of those 25 years in political office is even more impressive. It is the longest continuous stretch in office in the history of our country.
But there have been older parties in the shape of Joshua’s People’s Political Party (PPP) which lasted, nominally in the end, for three decades whilst its rival the St Vincent (and the Grenadines) Labour Party existed for almost a decade longer before being subsumed by the ULP. Pride of place where political longevity is concerned however goes to the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) still going strong after 44 years, 17 of them in office.
Formed by a merger of the old Labour party and PM Gonsalves’ Movement for National Unity just five years after the NDP achieved an historic clean sweep at the polls in 1989, the ULP embarked on a relentless campaign against the NDP in power and though gaining the majority of votes in the 1998 elections fell just short of a parliamentary majority. A combination of persistent campaigning, popular mobilisation and widespread dissatisfaction with the NDP as manifested in the 1999/2000 civil unrest forced early elections in 2001 and a ULP victory.
In its 18 years in office, the ULP has a number of impressive achievements to its credit. The sorely needed international airport at Argyle is the jewel in its crown where physical infrastructure is concerned but there have been significant accomplishments in the social field too, especially in health, education and housing. Foreign policy has been another area of success too culminating in gaining wide international support for a seat in the UN’s Security Council, a spectacular victory for such a tiny country. Nor should we omit alternative energy initiatives.
These have been achieved in a far from favourable international economic environment, in the face of setbacks from natural disasters and the negative effects of climate change. But as happens when governments are in power for extended periods, there are creeping signs of political neglect and social fallout. In spite of all its accomplishments, the ULP has seen its massive nine seat parliamentary majority of 2001 reduced to just one and there are signs of creeping disaffection, particularly given the persistent unemployment problem.
Even as it revels in its four terms in office and seeks a fifth, the ULP cannot afford to ignore the social signs. The politics of inclusion advanced by Dr Gonsalves following the 2001 victory has not turned out to be quite that way, in spite of the best of intentions. The country is now more divided than ever. The ULP can argue, with some justification, that the responsibility for this does not lie solely at its feet but too often it resorts to the politics of “the tribe” to boost its support. Dr Gonsalves’ tirade against “traitors, renegades, cast aways” and what have you last Sunday is an example.
The ULP needs to engage in sober reflection, not political triumphalism, needs to shed the image of growing arrogance on the part of those near to the throne, of the perception that party loyalty counts above all else. It must also begin to give us new signals – of humility, of willingness to compromise and seek national consensus on issues such as electoral reform.