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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Many people in T&T who followed the vote count for Thursday’s snap general election in the United Kingdom would have felt a strong sense of déjà vu. The surprising parallels in the outcome of that election with the two occasions in T&T’s recent political history when early polls turned out badly for the incumbent, can serve as important lessons for local politicians.

Now left with a hung Parliament due to the razor thin margin of her party’s election win—if it can even be called a win—UK Prime Minister Theresa May faces the daunting task of putting together and keeping in place a government to steer that country through tough Brexit negotiations in the coming months.

Although the Conservatives managed to hold on to 318 seats, the party fell frustratingly short of the 326 needed for an outright majority. Going into the election, the ruling party had 330 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, while their closest rivals, the Labour Party, had 229 seats. So severe was the party’s losses that it was eclipsed only by those suffered by the Scottish National Party which lost about 21 of its 54 seats and UKIP which managed only 593,852 votes—down from 3,881,099 in 2015.

Possibly still reeling from the amount of political ground she has lost, Ms May has refused to resign. She is struggling to regain credibility after an election gamble that backfired so spectacularly it gave significant momentum to former left-wing underdog, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who wasted no time in calling on Ms May to quit as prime minister.

It was quite a dramatic reversal for Ms May and the Conservatives who had gambled on a campaign dominated by Brexit but were confronted by a sudden shift in the political climate after deadly terrorists attacks in Manchester and London.

Suddenly security became the key election issue and Ms May’s political opponents seized the opportunity to remind voters that as interior minister between 2010 and 2016 she had slashed the police force by 20,000 officers. That, combined with fundamental strategic errors, including failure to offer a positive vision to voters, saw the prime minister’s lead in the polls rapidly evaporate just days before the election.

Herein lies some important lessons, not only for Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and his administration but also for Oppsition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and members of the United National Congress (UNC) whose biggest election successes came in the snap elections called by the late Patrick Manning on two occasions during his terms as prime minister.

The first was in 1995 when Mr Manning called a general election a full year before it was constitutionally due. The result was the People’s National Movement (PNM) deadlocked with the UNC at 17 seats each and the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) holding valuable bargaining chips with two seats. The UNC and the NAR united in a coalition and then UNC political leader Basdeo Panday replaced Mr Manning as Prime Minister.

On April 9, 2010, Mr Manning took another election gamble when he advised President George Maxwell Richards to dissolve Parliament, triggering an election two years early. For those polls on May 24, 2010, the UNC joined forces with other opposition parties to form the People’s Partnership, and won.

The biggest lesson from Ms May’s recent experience is how politically risky it can be to pin election fortunes on polls. It is easy to forget that polls are at best a snapshot of opinions at a particular time and place. The Conservatives had no warning in those opinion polls about the groundswell of young people who turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote for Labour on Thursday.

The other lesson is the danger of losing touch with one’s base. Ms May often seemed out of touch and never managed to connect with the electorate in her campaign. Isolating herself, even within her own Cabinet, by relying on the advice of a handful of advisers and largely ignoring most of her ministers was also costly.

These are very real dangers that can face the leaders of T&T’s two main political parties. Never underestimate the power of the vote.


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