Letters & Opinion

Town Hall Tuesdays Can Help Deepen Democratic Participation

By Stephen Lester Prescott

ANY party desirous of leading our people into more meaningful development must consider the very significant matter of broadening and deepening the democratic process. In other words it must ensure that democracy is not just a cliché or a catch-phrase such as the well-worn formula, “government by the people, of the people and for the people” has become. It must ensure that democracy must be given substance in that it becomes increasingly more participatory.

One of the frequent criticisms of the various forms of Western and Westminster parliamentary democracy is that it too often consists of “five minutes of democracy every four or five years”, meaning that the electorate are generally speaking, excluded from decision-making or from meaningfully determining the issues that impact their social and economic well-being for extended periods between elections. In the interim the propertied interests, who more often than not finance election campaigns, and their lobbyists influence disproportionately the trajectory of the country’s development.

This perception of our democratic process, especially in postcolonial societies where “civil society” organisations are at best very poorly developed, and where to question authority has traditionally been taboo, thanks to the authoritarian nature of social relations, is by no means inaccurate. To further compound the problem we have seen the tendency for the theoretical demarcation between the organs of state, the executive, judiciary and legislature to be so blurred as to allow the executive an inordinate amount of leverage particularly over parliament which theoretically expresses the sovereign will of the people.

Even in mature democracies like the United Kingdom this usurpation of the sovereign power of the people is becoming evident as expressed in the crisis that has developed in respect of the intended British Exit from the European Union. The matter of the motives behind the prorogation of parliament is particularly instructive in this regard. The challenge therefore is to develop modes of engagement with the people that seek to dialogue with them on an on-going basis. And to ensure that this continuous conversation be the basis of developing and refining programmes at the community and national levels that are reflective of the will and interests of all sections of the people. “We the people” must go beyond platitudinous repetition to actual practice.

It is in this regard that I consider the Town Hall Tuesday’s of the Saint Lucia Labour Party to be a step in the right direction. Those events I have followed in Babonneau, Gros Islet and Central Castries have been especially revealing. They have shown the hunger of our people to treat with the various issues of community as well as those of national moment in a very direct way with their leaders and would-be leaders. What is more, it has been shown that this can and should transcend Party Political lines.

While it is still true that because of the polarization of the society along party-tribal contours that many are guarded and apprehensive in respect of participation in such engagements, it is important to note that these informal, invite-all, exclude-none meetings, are opportunities for genuine discussion and the airing of concerns and ideas outside the narrow one-way, top-down communication of the traditional public meeting or rally. It is now up to the party to ensure that the format and other aspects of these Town Hall Tuesdays make them an increasingly people-friendly exercise as distinct from just another sounding board for the ideas of the leadership.

No doubt as the party reviews these activities and considers feedback from the participants throughout the length and breadth of the country, it will be able to hone that approach further towards achieving the objectives of an increasingly more meaningful engagement with all citizens. Not just with the party’s traditional support. Town Hall Tuesdays are an engagement for all – this bears repetition. It is an engagement where the party leadership listens, where they explain their plans, a mechanism through which the party’s plans, its programmes etc. are developed in on-going consultation with the people in their various communities. It is a mechanism that must ensure that manifestos and such programmatic documents are not prepared for the people and handed down to them from on high, but are developed with the actual participation of the people.

I believe that while the livestreaming of these events is good, the format will need, in the future, to explore how various electronic platforms might be used to broaden the participation that is the very raison d’être of this approach. This will surely and critically draw many of the younger and tech-savvy constituents into an engagement that should belong as much to them as to the more mature citizen. The political apathy that seems to have descended on much of our youth post the Black Nationalism/Socialism era is inimical to the health of a democracy that must truly reflect the aspirations of the people as distinct from those of a privileged elite. Sadly, whether we would like to believe it or not, there is such a thing as bourgeois democracy. And if we fail to broaden democratic participation we run the risk of stagnating in its quagmire.

Very importantly, I think, while Town Hall Tuesday is not an institutional part of our democracy at this time, it must evolve ultimately into such. The form and breadth of this is perhaps not now entirely clear, but it is obvious to me that this embryonic form of community consultation must not only be considered as an activity to be engaged in in preparation for elections, but more importantly as something to be regularized whether the party is in or out of office. It seems to me as well that such forms might in some way be tied to the development of local government, to the deepening of government and modes of governance at the local level, as what passes now for city and town “councils” are nothing but a replication at communal level of what has become endemic at the national level. These have simply become instruments of cronyism.

What is at the very heart of this approach has to be the continuous participation of our people in processes that ensure that they are always engaged in the elaboration of the ideas and the actions that seek to ensure that they are the architects of their society. This is critical in a society whose history has been one of existence for others. We ought not to be limited in our ideas of how our democracy might be enhanced. There is a need to go beyond what colonialism has bequeathed us to practices that more truly reflect the aspirations of the various sectors of our society.

I have seen the enthusiasm and energy with which constituents are responding to the Town Hall Tuesdays and I think this is the beginning of a meaningful development in our politics. It is an idea that those who see politics as something elitist and as “for the politicians” do not dare replicate. Even when they appear to be doing so it is not with the intention of a genuine dialogue that is the basis for social action. This is what must differentiate the Labour Party’s Town Hall Tuesdays from any imitation by the present clique in government. And its success will depend on its being sustained in one form or another.

Another consideration in the development of this form of engagement is that in addition to drawing people at the grass-roots into the elaboration of ideas and the formulation of approaches to development, it must also be the basis of drawing them into active participation in the implementation of these decisions. And here is where the possible nexus between a revitalized concept of local government and various forms of popular engagement might be actively considered. And note that I prefer to use the term “engagement” rather than “consultation”. This is because the latter term has become bastardised to mean simply telling the rulers’ hapless subjects what the ruler is about to do for the subjects. The subject then simply becomes the object of the grandiose undertakings of leaders with a misguided concept of themselves and their messianic “visions” for the people.

The Saint Lucia Labour Party’s Town Hall Tuesdays idea has the potential, if sustained and if enriched and developed, to become the practical basis for the deepening and broadening of a veritable people’s democracy. While many call for constitutional reforms (which I have no issue with) there are steps that can be taken in our everyday practice to build modes of governance that are more responsive to the needs of our people.

Please be sure to participate in the next Town Hall Tuesday event. And actively participate in shaping Saint Lucia’s future!

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