Political credibility in the UK and T&T

On May 6, Britons will cast their vote either to retain the incumbent Labour government of Gordon Brown or to replace it after 13 years with David Cameron’s Conservative Party or Nicholas Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. But with the growing disillusion with politics and politicians and the opinion polls showing no party with sufficient support to win a clear majority, it might be a case of none of the above, so to speak, with a high chance of a hung parliament and the balance of power in the hands of the hitherto unheralded Lib Dems.

The surge in the popularity of the latter has been attributed to Mr Cleggs’s surprising performance in the US-style televised debates – a new element in UK politics. In the first debate, Mr Clegg stole a march on his competitors, presenting himself in an assured and media-savvy manner and scoring high for his reasoned and reasonable positions. By the second debate, Mr Cameron had recovered enough to lead by a nose, paying Mr Clegg the backhanded compliment of copying his style.

The less charismatic Mr Brown lagged behind the others in both debates but was expected to make up lost ground in last night’s final debate on the economy, his supposed forte. However, as we went to press, it was unclear just how much the self-inflicted damage of his description of a pensioner as a “bigoted woman” in a remark to an aide caught on a cordless microphone on his lapel, would hurt his election prospects.

For many observers, the gaffe is a reflection of a wider problem. John Harris of the UK Guardian, says that the “bigot” jibe exposes the disconnect in Britain between politicians and voters, particularly between Labour and its traditional working class roots. BBC political editor Nick Robinson describes it as “a disaster for the prime minister because it showed the gap between his public and private face.” Clearly, even in a mature democracy like the UK, politicians have credibility problems.

In neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago, which will go to the polls on May 24, the hustings thus far have been marked by what Trinis call “mauvaise langue” (“bad talk” in Guyanese parlance), “picong” (colourful riposte and repartee, if you like), and “Robber talk” (the boastful, mocking verbal aggression of the Midnight Robber, a traditional Carnival character). But there has not yet been much focus on the issues that appear to have forced Prime Minister Patrick Manning to concede that a snap election was necessary to seek a renewed mandate from the people.

On the one hand, the platform of the ruling People’s National Movement has been disappointingly erected on the extremely low ground of “mauvaise langue” and personal denigration, with much unbecoming sexual and racial innuendo and other invective, directed against Kamla Persad-Bissessar and members of her United National Congress-led coalition.

On the other hand, while the tenor and content of the coalition’s campaign rallies have been generally devoid of “mauvaise langue”, but with a fair share of “picong”, the overall thrust of the so-called “People’s Partnership” has been disappointingly fluffy, almost as if perceptions of motherly niceness and decency will be sufficient to overcome images of patriarchal authoritarianism and arrogance.

Indeed, it is almost as if the opposition candidates are content to allow the PNM to demonise them, believing that taking the high road is sufficient to counter such an unedifying approach. But that may not be enough in Trinidad and Tobago’s highly charged political landscape and the burden appears to lie heavily on the coalition to convince the voters that it is capable of addressing the issues of the day in order to take the country forward.

Interestingly enough, the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce (TTCIC) launched on Tuesday a debates commission, proposing to hold two televised political debates on May 13 and May 18, focusing respectively on social and economic issues and on leadership. According to the TTCIC president, Angella Persad, the goal of the debates is to furnish the electorate with a clear understanding of where the parties stand on the issues that affect the population and this would lead to a more informed electorate with a strengthened understanding of democracy.

Mr Manning has however thrown cold water on the proposal, saying that it is “very unlikely” that he will participate in any such debate and that he has “nothing to gain” from a debate with Mrs Persad-Bissessar, who has declared herself available. He has also stated: “The PNM, instead of doing these debates, prefers to do what we are doing and walk around as we are walking around now.” A perverse example of walking the walk but not talking the talk, as it were.

The Trinidad Express, in its editorial yesterday, considers the prime minister’s refusal “surprising” in light of his attacks on his opposite number as “weak,” implying that his criticisms may therefore be considered baseless. Moreover, the newspaper speculates that “Mr Manning’s refusal will cause some people to remark that the PNM leader’s criterion for accepting or rejecting the invitation should not be what is good for him, but what is good for the country.” The editorial concludes: “It is because primal appeals are dominating the speeches from the platforms that many citizens would like a formal debate.”

The Chamber appears to be hoping that the debates will go ahead and that the parties will nominate two representatives each to participate. And while any such debate would be very interesting indeed, they would undoubtedly lose much of their appeal if the two contenders for the post of prime minister were not present to engage in direct verbal combat, “picong”, “Robber “talk and all, but hopefully without the “mauvaise langue”.

But even with the prospect of a tight election, the prime minister appears comfortable with the politics of the past. And while this attitude may appeal to the “PNM till ah dead” brigade, he may well be selling the people short and underestimating their capacity for exercising their right to make a choice based on the issues rather than fear of the other. After all, that is what Basdeo Panday did in the UNC’s internal elections and look where he is now.

The TTCIC initiative is an encouraging step towards a more mature democracy. It is up to T&T’s politicians to conduct themselves appropriately as pressure builds, but it remains to be seen, as Mr Brown has shown so dreadfully, which ones will really raise their game and claim political credibility.

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