The Passion, The Pain and The Power.
(This article by Andrew Antoine is a brief history of the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) to coincide with its 65th Anniversary Conference which took place last weekend.)
WHEN the first general elections under Universal Adult Suffrage was announced for October, 1951, there were two political parties in existence—the SLP and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). The PPP, like the SLP, was also established in 1950, but there was a major ideological difference—the SLP represented the working class (mainly descendants of African slaves), while the PPP represented the middle and upper-middle classes (members of the plutocracy and their allies).
Once again, the workers of Saint Lucia harkened to the voices of their leaders—union men turned politicians—during the first general elections campaign they had ever witnessed and participated in. Vociferous, intense, and exhausting, the campaign suddenly thrust men who had been forged from the industrial relations heat of trade unionism into the glaring limelight of heightened attention and scrutiny. And, the words flowed from the Castries Market Steps; words designed to educate the masses on the power of their vote; words that became steel to pierce the less-than-salutary ambitions of the PPP representatives of the middle and upper-middle classes; words that rang clearly and convincingly to the majority working class supporters of the SLP. In the end, the SLP won five of the eight available seats.
The next three elections of 1954, 1957, and 1961 returned the SLP to government with a majority of five, seven, and nine seats. Then came the shock defeat to the opposition United Workers Party (UWP)—an amalgamation of the PPP and a more recent party, the National Labour Movement (NLM), led by John Compton after his defection from the SLP—in 1964. The UWP took eight of the ten seats (the constituencies had been increased from eight to ten by then), leaving George Charles and Martin JnBaptiste of the SLP to represent South Castries and Anse la Raye/Canaries respectively. After the elections, John Compton was named Chief Minister of Saint Lucia.
Two years had now gone by, and George Charles was mulling over the events that had brought his beloved Party to this low point. Influential members of the SLP, who had previously hailed him as hero of the masses, were now calling for his head as leader of the Party. He still couldn’t comprehend the massive betrayal of some of his former comrades that had resulted in the ouster of the SLP government. Men with whom he had stood shoulder to shoulder in the dark, uncertain days of strife in the valleys; men with whom he had braved police batons, bayonets, and bullets; men who had decried the planters’ interests ideology of the PPP, only to merge with that party in furtherance of their hugely ambitious self-interests.
It wasn’t all that bad, he thought. There was still much to be done, but they had accomplished much. He began a mental listing of some of the achievements of the SLP and its parent organization, the Saint Lucia Workers’ Union:
• Formation of the first trade union in Saint Lucia
• Improved working conditions and wages for workers
• An eight-hour work day and overtime with pay
• A drastic reduction in child labour
• Introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage as a result of agitation of the unions in Saint Lucia and the rest of the region
• Modification of existing laws and introduction of new laws to benefit workers
• Strengthening the island’s trade regime
• Improving the road networks in the country
• Improving the social services for the island’s people—especially the poor
• Agreement for the extension of the electricity supply. This was to include all of the rural districts
• Survey of the Castries harbour for its extension and development
• An agreement for a modern telephone network
• Preliminary approaches to the American government seeking financial assistance for the construction of an International Airport at Vieux Fort
Despite the misgivings of many members and supporters of the SLP and Saint Lucia Workers’ Union, George Charles was removed as head of the Party in 1967 and as President of the union sometime later.
The UWP won the subsequent elections of 1969 and 1974 with six and ten seats respectively. In the intervening period leading to the 1979 general elections, a young, dynamic, and Oxford-educated political activist appeared on the scene. Disseminating his political views and opposition to the governance style of Prime Minister John Compton and his UWP government, George Odlum introduced himself to Saint Lucians through the Forum and the Saint Lucia Action Movement (SLAM), which he helped establish. His eloquence and fiery denunciation of the John Compton Government won him a very sizeable following, and he joined the SLP soon thereafter.
Energized by the entry of George Odlum into the ranks of the SLP, the Party’s base experienced a resurgence. Simultaneously, the Public Service unions—themselves up in arms against the John Compton government—were making it known exactly how they felt because of the government’s stubborn refusal to grant their members wage increases, which they had been requesting for several years. In fact, John Compton had infamously said, in reference to the union’s wage increases requests, that “You can put a gun to my head, once I make up my mind nothing can change it.” It was in that environment that the SLP was swept into office on 2nd July, 1979, winning twelve of the available seventeen seats. It was a short-lived victory! The ghosts of 1964 reared their heads once again. Opposing, fractious interests within the government took their disagreements into the public domain and the SLP government imploded. In 1982, fresh elections were called, and the SLP was returned to opposition with only two seats to the UWP’s fourteen.
Notwithstanding the SLP’s short reign from 1979 to 1982, they were able to build two new schools and significantly expand another two, set the agricultural sector on a path to sustainable recovery within eight to twelve months after the devastation of Hurricane Allen in 1980, and increase social allowances to the poor and indigent.
Julian Hunte became political leader of the SLP in 1984 when, it seemed, the job of reorganizing the Party into a fully functional, fighting force was impossible. A self-made, disciplined, and meticulous man, he was able to reshape the Party in time for the two general elections of 1987, which the UWP won both times with the same nine to eight margin. John Compton’s UWP won again in 1992. They had hit upon a simple formula for success—all they had to do was invoke the SLP’s implosion after 1979 with the words: “Remember 1979 to 1982” and many of the SLP supporters would shun the polls while a jubilant UWP base showed their numbers in the ballot boxes.
But time was running out for the UWP administration! Scandal after scandal and incidents of corruption plagued the beleaguered government. Then, in 1996, Dr. Kenny Anthony—the erstwhile Minister of Education in the ill-fated 1979 to 1982 SLP administration—left the CARICOM Secretariat in Guyana, to become the political leader of the SLP. It was a game-changer of seismic proportions for the SLP.
In 1997, Dr. Anthony led the SLP to a stunning victory of sixteen seats to the UWP’s one, breaking the UWP’s fifteen-year reign. He led the Party to another five-year term in 2001, winning fourteen seats to the UWP’s three. But, the tide changed again in 2006 with the re-emergence of John Compton at the helm of the UWP (John Compton had replaced Dr. Vaughan Lewis as political leader). In 2006, the SLP suffered a shock defeat at the polls, with the UWP taking eleven of the seventeen seats. It didn’t take long, however, for the corruption and scandal bogeymen to revisit the UWP administration after the death of John Compton in 2007. In what many described as the most blatant acts of scandal and corruption in the history of politics in Saint Lucia, the stench of government and governance decay hit not only the local streets but regional and international places as well. Disgusted, the electorate dumped the UWP administration in another reversal in 2011, giving the SLP eleven of the seventeen seats.
It is Sunday, September, 2015. Dr. Anthony sits at a desk in his home and reflects on the current fortunes of the country. Saint Lucia’s socio-economic standing is what concerns him the most. He knows that whilst the country’s debt and growth deficit have been contained, unemployment (especially among the youth) and crime must be curtailed. He also knows that the world economic situation is still not doing too well after the global financial meltdown of 2007/2008. The growth forecasts for Saint Lucia’s two major source markets, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), don’t inspire too much optimism. The forecasts for the U.S are 2.7 in 2015, 2.8 in 2016, and 2.4 in 2017 while those for the UK are 2.6 in 2015, 2.6 in 2016, and 2.2 in 2017.
Like George Charles long before him, Dr. Anthony begins a mental listing of some of the achievements of the SLP government under his tenure from 1997:
• An average GDP growth rate of 1.76% from 1998 to 2006 (the country experienced negative growth in 2000 and 2001 due to a terrible drought in 2000 and the adverse impact of 9/11 in 2001), and the stabilization of the economy from 2012 (the economy had begun to hemorrhage before 2011)
• Stabilization of the banana industry with an injection of over $200 million
• Growth in the fisheries sector (fish-landing facilities in Vieux-Fort, Soufriere, and Choiseul, and installation of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs))
• Protection for livestock farmers
• Construction of several hotels (which contributed to the attainment of record tourist arrivals)
• Construction of the Goods Distribution Free Zone in Vieux-Fort
• Extension of the George F.L. Charles Airport Terminal Building
• Extension of the George F.L. Charles Airport runway
• Property tax reduction
• Relief for first-time home owners
• Tax exemption for low-income earners
• Abolition of entertainment tax
• Abolition of the school shift system
• Universal secondary education
• EC$500 bursary for secondary school students
• Free laptops for secondary school students
• Support for tens of thousands with the introduction of the Basic Needs Trust Fund (BNTF), the Poverty Reduction Fund (PRF), and the James Belgrave Micro Enterprise Fund (BELFund)
• Construction of new police stations
• Construction of new fire stations
• Job creation under the National Initiative to Create Employment (NICE)
• Refurbishment of schools under the Basic Education Enhancement Project (BEEP)
• Establishment of the Constituency Development Programme with expenditure totalling over $60 million up to 2014/2015
• Over twenty (20) bridges built since 2011
• Several roads and drains rehabilitated
• Restructuring of the tourism industry resulting in record arrivals from 2012
• Tax relief in property and personal tax
• Eighteen hectares of Forest Reserve restored for soil and water conservation
• Seventy-five hectares of landslide areas restored within the Forest Reserve
The challenges ahead will be many, the Prime Minister acknowledges silently. The mess left behind by the former administration still needs careful management, and the economy, although stabilized, must be returned to positive figures without embracing a structural adjustment programme imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as has already been done by some members of CARICOM. Cool, gentle breezes coming in through his open windows do not prevent a thin film of sweat from accumulating on Dr. Anthony’s forehead. He agonizes over the future sacrifices that will be required to guide Saint Lucia, yet again, through the turbulent waters of the unpredictable world economy, and its own domestic woes. Suddenly, he smiles. It’s a bittersweet, but comforting thing. He has learned to trust his Saint Lucian people. Temperamental though they sometimes are, they still possess the ethos of their forefathers; it is an ethos rooted in community, struggle, and perseverance; in the timeless defiance of a system of slavery and colonialism, they fought and won. And, the SLP and SLP government have been there before, Dr. Anthony muses. He smiles again, before taking up his pen to write.