In a recent paper entitled ‘Best Practices of Effective Parties’ the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs outlines a triangle of three critical areas: internal democracy, outreach and transparency.
A political party that values internal democracy will have its leaders trained in party rules, regulations and values. The members and leaders work together to develop and refine platforms and policies and the leaders and candidates are selected freely, fairly and according to party rules. These parties value both vertical and horizontal internal communication.
Transparency is another important best practice of political parties on the cutting edge. These parties develop and implement monitoring strategies to ensure accountability to party members, voters and society. They report financial contributions, expenses, assets and funding sources to party members and the public. In terms of outreach, these political parties recruit members from various sectors of society and develop targeted outreach messages.
These best practices keep political parties alive, but nothing beats the quality of leadership that a party has. Party leaders who are grounded in democratic values and are known for their integrity are good for political parties. They must be able to articulate a compelling vision for the society they wish to lead, and have the ability to put together a team of persons, and the structures and processes to make the party function and have the support of a wide cross section of their societies.
The founders of political parties usually do so with the intention that they would be around even after they themselves have gone ‘into the good night.’
However, the Caribbean, not to mention globally, is littered with the demise of political parties. Some, like the National Democratic Movement in Jamaica and the New Jewel Movement of Grenada, began with some goodwill and support, but soon after, disintegrate or went into oblivion, to be remembered mostly by historians.
Some political parties live only for a short while because they were solely instruments to realize their founder’s desire to get into office. Having neither a system for nor commitment to intra-party democracy, they soon wither. Political parties, to survive, must adapt and remain relevant to the needs and wishes of the people. They must encourage contest and election of its leaders, so that they do not become dominated by one individual, usually one with an‘I am the hero’ mentality.
For such parties, when that individual, usually the founder loses an election or dies, the party disintegrates, or if they continue to exist for some time longer, in the minds and lives of citizens, they are dead.
Traditionally, in the Caribbean, third parties are formed after that of the two main parties and usually do not do well at the polls. This is due mainly because of the nature of the first-past-the-post elections dominated usually by two main political parties, which swap places as they dominate each election.
To survive, like all social institutions, political parties must constantly renew themselves through the incorporation of new ideas, new leadership, new programmes and by constantly listening to the people, continue to change and adapt, while holding on to core and fundamental principles. They must understand the changing nature of social forces and, critically, learn and relearn the complexity of voting behavior.
Having said this, are these the reasons for the failure of Cayman’s first political parties?
Strong nationalist sentiments were behind the formation of political parties in the other Caribbean countries. The crucible of events of the 1930’s in the Caribbean was the broad context of the formation of modern political parties in the Anglophone Caribbean. However, Roy Bodden, Caymanian historian, argues that it was not until 1962 that nationalist sentiments were experienced in Cayman’s politics and that this was best seen in Ormond Panton and his National Democratic Party which was formed in 1962.
According to Bodden, prior to this time, Cayman Politics was under the stranglehold of the merchant establishment, a small local elite of whites and near whites, the sons of ‘those 19th C settlers who established themselves as traders, merchants, sea captains and land holders.’ Bodden says that these men by the 1950’s had entrenched themselves in Caymanian society, ‘that not only did they have a monopoly on politics but it was this group which set the societal values and cast the template for standards in economy, politics and religion.’
The social agenda of the establishment, Bodden writes was racist, and the political agenda was one where the ‘white establishment nominated the membership of the Justices. He explains that in the Vestry also , ‘ leadership came from the white oligarchy and it was no secret that these vestrymen worked closely with the white justices to preserve their own interests as entrepreneurs and petty capitalists.’
Essentially, Boddens view is that prior to 1962, politics in the Cayman Islands was one based on a patronage system controlled by prominent family names which had emerged in the 19th and early 20th C . For Bodden, the lateness in the arrival of political consciousness in the Cayman Islands, in comparison to the other British Caribbean territories, was due mostly to the fact that this establishment based on the ‘nexus of power, influence and money’ also ‘manipulated exploited social class, skin colour and ideological preference.’
For Bodden, such a self-serving merchant elite establishment was content with female disenfranchisement and keeping the majority politically naive.
With this background,explained by Bodden, we can now seek to understand what actually explains the death of the Cayman Vanguard Progressive Party, formed as Cayman’s first political party in on August 8, 1958. As important as Ormond Panton is in the political history of the islands, it was Warren Conolly who formed the first political party. Panton’s National Democratic Party was formed in 1962 and was to have far greater impact.
Bodden dedicates one chapter of his book, Patronage, Personalities and Parties, Caymanian Politics from 1950-2000 to the emergence and fate of the Cayman Vanguard Progressive Party.
The CVPP was formed, Bodden explains, ‘by a group of men who were not part of the establishment but were mainly black and colored elements of the Caymanian society, some of Jamaican descent while others like their Jamaican counterparts, held no ties to the merchant elite.’ Most of itsmemberscame from George Town but also from other parts of the island.
The founders, writes Bodden, were generally well educated and had experiences outside of Caymanian society. Duly registered in August 8, 1958, the President was Warren Conolly,Vice-President Warren Conolly, Secretary Sydney Piercy, Assistant Secretary Florence Cayasso and Treasurer Bertram.
Bodden characterizes that response to the formation of this party as ‘the enduring death rattles between a dying systemof old patronageand the birth pains of a new parliamentary democracy.’
The merchant establishment, he explains, engaged immediately in a smear campaign especially focusing on the fact there were Jamaicans involved in organizing the party with the suggestions that there might be suspicious intentions.
The CVPP contested the 1959 elections but won not even one seat. For Bodden, the results did not reflect lack of ideas or vision on the part of the CVPP leaders, but that the merchant elite used all means necessary to ensure that they did not change the status quo.
This party did not recover from this embarrassing loss at the poll. Bodden’s final sentence, ‘TheCVPP, while it may have deserved a more auspicious and longer existence, voluntary confined itself to the trash heap of history. The collective appears not to have survived the melt down, and there is no record of any official comment or any post mortem.’