The independent countries of the English-speaking Caribbean gave birth to political parties in the late 1930’s and these organizations, for the most part, became permanent features of the political landscapes of these countries.
On the other hand, Cayman did not have its first party until 1958. Its brief attempt at two-party politics ended soon and by the general election of 1972 ‘ Teams had replaced political parties in Cayman Islands politics until the more recent advent of the People’s Progressive Movement (PPM) formed in 2002 and the United Democratic Party ( UDP) now Cayman Democratic Party ( CDP) formed in 2001.
The main teams in Cayman’s politics have included the Unity Team of 1976; the Dignity Team of 1980 and the National Team of 1992. It should be pretty straightforward to say how teams are different from and similar to political parties. But is it all that obvious? And which has more advantages?
As I have written before, teams, like political parties, are principally political organizations which have as their main objective control of the machinery of government. Both are political organizations in the sense that they are concerned with the issue of power and its utilization at the level of the nation-state. Political parties, like teams, have to be concerned with the broad agenda of issues facing the societies in which they operate and the larger global environment which have direct and indirect bearing on local realities. Political parties, like teams, work not just to influence policy but ultimately to have control of the government apparatus in order to be in charge of the formulation and execution of policies.
Political parties can also be defined by their functions. They provide opportunities for people with similar political philosophies and ideas to meet, organize and campaign in order to place their members in Government, but if not, at least in Opposition. In doing this political parties are the main institutions which provide candidates for elections and by extension provide the nation’s political leaders. Political parties recruit and nominate candidates who the leaders think will win in elections. They help their candidates to win elections and while not in office they monitor the actions of office holders. Teams, to some extent, also provide these functions but are limited by the fact that they tend to be ‘transitory’.
Another distinguishing feature of a political party is desire for permanence. It seems to me that only in this respect were the Teams which dominated the local political scene prior to the formation of the UDP and PPM, not political parties. As I have written before, those who form political parties usually do so with a desire that they become a permanent part of their societies. That many disappear after at most two years does not mean that that was the intention.
Because political parties are characterized by an intention to be permanent, there is need for a constitution, formal constituency organization, a system of voting to change party leaders and so on. Political parties are thus much more formal organizations. Teams are by their nature organizations in transition- they are formed around election time and participants, as far as I can tell, understand their transitory nature.
As political parties are permanent political organizations, they strive to have an organizational structure that can facilitate the recruitment of members, develop policy, raise campaign funds to educate the electorate about campaign issues, and other such activities. They develop views, positions and policies and communicate these to the electorate not only, but especially during election campaigns.
In addition, because political parties are permanent organizations, the voting and general public knows way beforehand what they are getting. They know that that the party in Opposition or simply not in government, is striving to do so. The public knows beforehand that if the leader of the party in Opposition were to win the election, he or she will be leading the country. There are no surprises with political parties as persons contesting are likely to be in the public domain for some time.
Take for example, a serious Opposition Party, will announce a ‘Shadow Cabinet.’ So the party that forms the Government has a Cabinet of Ministers who runs various Ministries. There is a Minister of Education, Finance, Tourism, and so on. The party in Opposition, though not in government, knows that an important function of an Opposition party is also to consistently critique Government and to present alternative positions and possibilities in a consistent, organized and credible way that demonstrates that the party in Opposition is thinking through current issues and is in touch with what is happening.
This is usually best done by a ‘Shadow Cabinet’ of persons appointed by the Leader of the Opposition to speak on specified portfolios. So there is a Shadow Minister of Education, of Finance, of Tourism, or however, else the Leader of the Opposition might indicate he intends to call the various Ministries. Apart from providing cut and thrust in political life, the appointment of a Shadow Cabinet by a serious Opposition Party, is also a signal to the public as to who would likely be Minsters if the Opposition Party were to become Government.
The public can scrutinize way ahead of time what it desires and Opposition Spokespersons while providing to the public a ‘Government in Waiting’, also get useful experience critiquing, agreeing with, and proposing new policy directions that they would undertake so the public knows what are the other policy options likely to be taken if the party in Opposition were in Government. Hopefully, if they became Government, they should be able to ‘hit the ground running’ being to some extent already familiar with the issue and challenges in their respective portfolios.
Running a country is serious business and is best served by persons who have spent time thinking about the issues and proposing ideas and position papers way before an election. The political novice, not saddled with the responsibility of running a government, may believe that the issues are simple and clear and solutions obvious, but in government soon learns that the issues are far more complex and that getting things done requires the art of working with multiple constituencies and of learning how to survive on far less sleep. The inexperienced, now at the helm of government, immediately agrees with Shakespeare’s Henry IV, who, bemoaning his position as King and his inability to rest, even on the quietest of nights, begrudges the ‘ wet sea boy’, who perched on a mast, amid wind and waves, nods of easily. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ he concluded.
Political parties are superior organizations to teams. Nonetheless, political parties, to be taken seriously, must function as modern organizations. They must resist personality politics in favour of party transparency. They must be faithful to their constitutions and must engage in continued renewal of persons and ideas and so on. Their aim should not be only to win and maintain governmental power, but must embrace an active and permanent identity in the community by engaging in research, civic education and training and routinely forging strong cross-party networks and discussions with government, communities and NGO’s.