A Question of Leadership

OBA & PLP Incompetence

By all accounts, the OBA should not be the Government of Bermuda today.

That it remains the Government, that it has survived the crises it has, is not a testament to the resilience of the OBA but rather the incompetence of the Opposition PLP.

And this must invariably lead to a question of leadership.

A failure of leadership, both OBA and PLP.

A failure of leadership, both OBA and PLP.

Why do I say the OBA shouldn’t be the Government today?

First off, at least two of the OBA MPs should have been disqualified as election candidates for failing to disclose their contracts with Government, as per parliamentary election rules.  The PLP new about this, however rather than take the action required to ensure the integrity of our democratic system, they missed out on the window of opportunity to do so, both prior to the election and immediately after.  Blame for this lies with both Paula Cox and Marc Bean for failing to take action on this, as well as Kim Wilson (then AG) for not enforcing the law in question.

Secondly, the PLP has failed to press home the advantage that they had in the immediate aftermath of the Jet Gate scandal, when the OBA was fractured and the Premier forced to resign, as well as revelations of new scandals which the OBA has managed to keep under wrap since, partly due to the continued institutional failure of our media to investigate.

The PLP tabled a motion of censure and gave notice of a motion of no confidence in the wake of the revelations of the Jet Gate scandal, but rather than press forward with it they boycotted parliament on another issue, missing their chance and allowing the OBA to sufficiently regroup.  While a principled argument might be made for the PLP concerning the boycott, I think it was a strategic error on their part.

The previous PLP Leader, Paula Cox, displayed an astonishing lack of strategy in failing to call the election earlier, capitalising on Opposition disarray and the state of the economy, which was only going to get worse and hurt re-election chances the longer she held off.  Had she called an election earlier the PLP would likely have been returned, albeit with a reduced majority, but with the chance of benefiting from a potential improvement in the economy ahead of the next election (on account of global economic improvements).

A Failure of Leadership

The current Leader has displayed a lack of coherent strategy in pressing home the advantages the PLP had at key moments which would have likely led to the OBA Government being replaced.

Whether this is because the Leader does not consider himself or the PLP ready to return to power or it’s a result of pure strategic confusion and bungling matters little.  Both demonstrate a failure of Leadership.

Beyond the points raised above, concerning the strategic errors of the Leadership at a national political level, the current Leadership has committed several grave errors at a membership level.

Immediately after coming to office the new Leader alienated core sections of the PLP with his gaffe about a generational divide within the PLP – and while many members apparently gave him the benefit of the doubt during the early months of his Leadership, what may have begun as a mere trickle of members away from the PLP has since become catastrophic, with an approximate exodus of 39% of members between December 2012 and October 2014.

While part of this exodus may be accounted for by the loss of ‘fairweather members’ – those opportunists that encrust political parties not out of any ideological interest but out of an attraction to power or the access to it which membership in a governing party provides, and whose motivation to remain members was lost with the 2012 election defeat – this cannot explain all of it.

While the PLP historically has had a socially conservative wing within it, through its association with the ‘Black’ churches, the particularly homophobic statements by Mr Bean alienated the socially liberal wing of the membership and no doubt led many to conclude they could not in good conscience be a member of a party led by a person with such views.

Other members have no doubt also been alienated by Mr Bean’s leadership style and tendency to over-the-top rhetoric or self-defeating tactical moves.  While such rhetoric may endear him to some factions within the party, it does so at the cost of other factions, many of whom – as per the 39% membership decline – have chosen to leave the party altogether.

His stated intention of moving the party to the political right and away from what residual traditional labour values it still held, has likely led the more traditional labour, social democratic and socialist members to also join this membership exodus – and in the process accelerating Mr Bean’s right-wing project by removing potential resistance, and thus expediting the flow of leftist members in a self-fulfilling cycle.

Mr Bean has so far apparently failed to reverse this membership decline, and may well be stuck in a vicious internal cycle, where the membership decline renders him more and more in a desperate situation and ever more reliant on a base supportive of his leadership style and bombastic rhetoric, which in turn only drives the exodus of members further.

While he may have handily won the Leadership again in October, it’s questionable how much he did so as a result of the membership decline and a campaign failure on the part of his rival – or due to the failure of others to rise to the challenge and give the membership an alternative they considered worthwhile.

A Lack of Discipline

Anyone who becomes the Leader of the PLP knows that they will become the subject of character assassination, be it through anonymous attacks or the focus of what I think most agree to be a media pre-disposed against the PLP, both historically and currently – a situation only exacerbated by the loss of the Bermuda Sun, which was considered by many a more objective media outlet than the RG.

However, Mr Bean has demonstrated a lack of self-discipline which has only led to giving his detractors proverbial gifts on a silver platter.  It’s one thing to know you’ll be a target, and another altogether to do the work for your enemies against yourself.

While his decision to open a betting shop when and where he did was bound to attract criticism (both internal and external) regardless, it is his apparent vulgarity of language and misogyny that is the real problem here.  His tendency to react rather than act strategically, and a failure to restrain his apparent misogyny, have betrayed either ignorance on his part of the political consequences or a lack of self-discipline on his part.

His conversation with Ms Davis (the ethics of her taping it notwithstanding, it looking like a form of entrapment), by all accounts he turned an opportunity to weaken the OBA (there was a real chance of encouraging Ms Davis to ‘cross the floor’, sooner or later) into a simmering crisis, one that initially strengthened the OBA (by alienating a potential defector tot he PLP) and giving the OBA a marvelous gift to be deployed, no doubt through proxies, come the next election.

His subsequent apparent outburst towards a female OBA party officer at an advanced polling station (of all places!), to the point that he is now subject to a police investigation, only reinforces the image of Mr Bean as being reckless and prone to vulgarity and misogynistic statements.

There’s long been a misogynistic streak within the PLP, which has been central to key moments of the PLP’s evolution, be it the schism of the 1980’s that created the NLP (and skillfully exploited by the then UBP with a snap election that decimated the Opposition), the undermining of Jennifer Smith as Leader in 2003, or the undermining of Paula Cox as Leader that, combined with her own strategic errors, rendered her an incredibly weak Leader, concluding in both the loss of her seat and the Government in 2012.

In Mr Bean’s Leadership we see this tendency in caricature, and it is a contributing factor to the PLP’s membership decline and failure to capitalise on OBA incompetency.

Politics, not personal

To be clear, on a personal level I quite like Mr Bean.  I have always found him affable and generally diligent.

Ideologically however we are quite opposed.  Although we largely agree on certain positions, such as the decriminalisation and/or legalisation of marijuana and a generally progressive approach to ‘drugs’ as a public health, rather than a criminal matter, for the most part (and by his own admission) he is ideologically to the right (and eclectically so).

Notwithstanding our ideological differences, I think he has failed as Leader of the PLP, both in terms of reversing the decline in membership, and in terms of overall political strategy.

His latest misstep only reinforces this view.

While he may not have committed any crime – the investigation is ongoing – I think it only underlines the problem of his Leadership.

At the moment, he may be able to rally what remains of the PLP core, but he continues to alienate the swing voters (which have only grown with the exodus of PLP members from the party).

It seems as if the PLP’s strategy for re-election is simply to not be the OBA, to be the slightly lesser of two evils.

That is not good enough.  And the alienation of swing voters raises the question of whether, despite the unpopularity of the OBA, Mr Bean can actually lead the PLP to power.

From my perspective, as things stand now, the most realistic outcome of the next election is apathy (with a record low voting turn-out) and a hung parliament.

Whether Mr Bean can correct his own errors, not make any more, and reverse the membership decline of the PLP is an open question.  At the moment I don’t think he can, nor am I optimistic at the moment that there’s a viable alternative within the PLP.

And so we’re left with a choice between not so much the lesser of the two evils, but the lesser of two incompetents.  Such is the tragic and uninspiring reality of Bermudian politics today.

What needs to be done?

Mr Bean needs to ask himself if he can adopt the self-control that is needed at his level and whether he can learn from the strategic and tactical errors he has made since becoming Leader.  If he can do this he may still be able to lead the PLP to victory.

The PLP needs to ask itself if Mr Bean really is a viable Leader that can lead them to victory; and what can be done to reverse the loss of members post-2012.  It’s members need to also look at the entire machinery of the PLP and seek to revitalise it back to a grassroots dominated party – for far too long the branches have been dysfunctional, leading to a top-down party rather than a bottom-up one, with questions remaining about whether the delegates system is working like it’s supposed to.

The OBA members need to hold their own party to account, ensuring that the revelations unveiled in the former Chair’s final report are fully investigated – with full transparency and accountability – and that they don’t give their party a continued free pass out of fear that to do otherwise would see the PLP return to power.  The PLP partially went wrong precisely because its members were afraid of the UBP returning to power if they were too critical of the direction the party was taking.  As it was, the inaction of the membership to correct the course of the PLP led precisely to that outcome while also ruining the PLP brand quite spectacularly.

The voting public needs to try to hold our democratic institutions – the media, parliament and the political parties – to account and push for the political reforms that were promised, as well as those that the Jet Gate scandal have demonstrated we need, principally campaign finance laws.  We need to collectively overcome the petty politics that dominates us, obscuring the wholesale collapse of our democratic institutions in the 21st century.

7 thoughts on “A Question of Leadership

  1. Is it unreasonable to suggest that (a) since there was only one challenge for the PLP leadership recently, and (b) the votes that were cast were clearly in favour of Bean, (and significantly not in favour of Walton Brown) that by and large the voting membership is “happy” with the current state of affairs?

    On the face of it, it doesn’t appear to suggest the party is unhappy with the overall direction and leadership at this time.

  2. I found this to be a very well considered post and I am sorry for you that you have to put up with being trashed on the Facebook pages.
    It drives home to me that the Facebook commentators for the most part do not reflect public opinion and that, for ordinary people to read the Facebook discussions, only reinforces to them the disconnect between the party faithful and the public at large.

    For all the opportunity for online political discussion, the actual occurrence of productive, critical discussion online is rare for Bermuda, as discussions get hijacked by party cheerleaders.

    I wonder whether the delegate voting figures do reflect a massive decline in membership. Or were the delegates there but abstained due to regret at Marc Bean’s leadership but unwillingness to be seen to be actively opposed to him.

    Regarding change, I suspect that the PLP does not have the wherewithal to change. To truly convince the public that it has changed, it would have to purge itself of many members in order to show that the toxic behaviour is over. That would be an extremely painful process. However, if it does not purge itself, it will never be able to rid itself of its toxic image which continues to entrench as demographics shift.

    It is so frustrating that the PLP does not have insight into its own role in perpetuating the dysfunction of Bermuda’s political systen

  3. Pingback: Addendum to A Question of Leadership | "catch a fire"

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