It is with a great deal of reluctance that I am commenting on the UNC’s showing in the 2020 General Elections because I have been subject to the arbitrary censorship of editors employing their discretion informed by their own biases and prejudices in frequently discarding my contributions (e.g. response to Ferdie Ferreira and Dr. Ralph Henry) and also because the views of former parliamentarians are generally regarded by the current leadership as antiquated and irrelevant.
Nevertheless, as one of the four key Members of Parliament involved in the formation of the UNC, I cannot but acknowledge the current disarray and disillusionment in the party in the wake of the loss in the 2020 General Elections. Of the four, Kelvin Ramnath is no longer with us. John Humphrey has been incommunicado for the longest while and former leader Basdeo Panday is so consumed by the hurt experienced in losing the leadership to Kamla Persad-Bissessar in 2010 that he seems averse to making a balanced, enlightening statement on the current UNC. It is left to me as one of the founding foursome to attempt an objective assessment.
A profile of electoral preferences would reveal that, apart from the support base of the PNM and UNC, there is a third constituency which is basically anti-PNM but generally not endeared to the major Indo-Trinidadian party opposed to the PNM. However, this third constituency can be persuaded to find common ground with the major Indo-Trinidadian party through its representative organization and in favourable circumstances. When this third constituency becomes fully committed to alignment with the major Indo-Trinidadian party, whether the ULF in 1986 or the UNC in 2010, the ensuing elections result in a landslide with many seats captured in the East/West corridor.
Even if elements of this constituency can be attracted in key areas, it is possible to defeat the PNM by a slim margin as happened in 2000 when the UNC won St. Joseph, Tunapuna and San Fernando West. However, if this constituency becomes greatly disenchanted and significantly withdraws its support, the major party opposed to the PNM would slide to defeat. Attempting to convince PNM supporters to vote against their party is both time consuming and unproductive.
In 2010, it was the support base of the COP aligned to that of the UNC which was the critical factor in the overwhelming success of that year. The role of Jack Warner, MSJ, NJAC and others were electorally insignificant. The relationship with the support base of the third constituency therefore had to be nurtured and managed to retain its commitment either wholly or substantially.
Instead, over the 2010-2015 period the leadership of the UNC alienated much of this support through outright cronyism (e.g. Reshmi Ramnarine), compromised parliamentary manoeuvres to accommodate friends (e.g. Sec. 34), profligate spending in non-priority projects to benefit financiers (e.g. SIS and other contractors), awesome ministerial licence (e.g. award of legal briefs and Ministers’ association with contractors) and lack of restraint, if not recklessness, in the management of Treasury resources.
Apparently, the Prime Minister relied heavily on the advice of a few self-serving and self-enriching Ministers that the COP leadership could be marginalized but its support base retained by high levels of Government spending (a doubling of transfers and subsidies), by resort to what was considered popular measures, by grand public relations exercises to project the Prime Minister’s image and by the scurrilous demonizing of Dr. Rowley, the PNM political leader.
In addition, the UNC’s 2015 Elections campaign was a logistical nightmare in terms of candidate selection, space for campaigning, establishing priorities and creating a forceful and focused message. Obscene levels and frequency of advertisement in the media and on the ground were promoted.
It was all to no avail. In the end the UNC as the incumbent governing party lost a whopping 11 seats and retained only two traditional seats in the East/West corridor. It was a shattering defeat and, instead of accepting responsibility, the UNC political leader sought to deflect it. As far as I am aware, there was no candid, comprehensive and meaningful post mortem of the electoral debacle. Nothing seemed to have been learnt from the defeat.
In 2020, the UNC faced a PNM which had the advantage of incumbency and some success in containing the COVID–19 pandemic. However, these advantages could have been overcome by the UNC with a strategic instead of a scatter-shot campaign encompassing the following elements among others:-
(a) confront the allegations of corruption and misuse of funds incessantly repeated by the PNM,
(b) credibly explain the opposition to certain Bills in Parliament dealing with crime,
(c) put forward a reasoned position on the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to the negative propaganda of the PNM,
(d) continuously emphasize the positives and viability of the proposed economic transformation plan especially with respect to diversification and employment creation as against the relative vacuum from the PNM,
(e) deal with the distortion and disparagement of the proposal to access local financial resources,
(f) continuously repeat the critical deficiencies and failures of the past 5 years of PNM Government,
(g) dispense with the public relations razzmatazz of unproductive motorcades, superfluous billboards and overabundance of media advertisements in favour of a targeted programme to reach amenable elements of the third constituency and undecided in specific constituencies in the East/West corridor and elsewhere,
(h) select candidates with track records, targeted voter appeal and access to personnel and other resources appropriate to the specific constituency, (i) present a public image of the leader as aware, alert, composed, resolute and undistracted by racial and other innuendos.
In the end, many of these requirements were either not met by the UNC or met sparingly and ineffectively. It was a definite and decisive failure of leadership and management. The outcome under the first-past-the-post electoral system seemed to have been a forgone conclusion except for the saving grace of Moruga/Tableland. The pledges of loyalty to the leader does not erase the inescapable necessity to face the reality of diminishing prospects and the requirement of incisive self examination and bold measures.