A fascinating spectacle is unfolding in the British politics. One of its greatest political prizes, the leadership of the Labour Party, is at stake and two brothers are leading the contest. Sons of the late Ralph Milliband, one of Britain’s leading Marxist intellectuals, David and Ed Milliband both served in the Cabinet of the last Labour Government. David was the Foreign Secretary and Ed was the Environmental Secretary. David, the front runner, had been an advisor to Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister and Ed, the younger of the two, emerged into prominence under Gordon Brown.
Even though David does not pretend to have any left credentials, Ed is perceived to be on the centre left. But in Labour Party politics, especially since the Blair era, all Marxist influence was eradicated. Long before, since the time of Harold Wilson, the distinction between centre and centre left was a matter of mere opportunistic nuance, not ideology, even though the Marxist and progressive left was still strong and exercised real influence. In any event, once in office, Labour follows the dictates of market economics, pandering to the City, and succumbs to the ‘charms’ across the Atlantic, be they those of Jack Kennedy, George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush. British foreign policy slavishly follows that of the United States, as with Guyana in the 1960s. And we have seen in the 2000s that in relation to the Iraq War, Britain ditched its allies in Europe and went along with the US.
It therefore matters little to Britain or to developing countries whether David or Ed succeeds in being elected to the leadership of the Labour Party. Once Labour is elected to Government, there would be no material difference in its policies, whoever is the Prime Minister; maybe more emphasis on this or that social tinkering, but no fundamental difference. So for us in Guyana, with our own presidential competition discreetly going on, it has been a fascinating spectacle to watch two brothers, trying hard to be polite, but with tempers now fraying at the edges, engaging in debate, each promising a new and better day for Labour and, importantly, how to transform and modernize (from 1997) the policies of the Labour Party to recapture the support which has fallen off.
The mechanism for selecting a leader in the Labour Party is a vote by members. At one time in the not too distant past, the 1970s, the choice was made by the Parliamentary Labour Party, that is to say, by MPs; the same applied to the Conservatives. After much criticism, the systems were opened up to allow for the members to make the selection. In the PPP the system of elections of its officials and presidential candidate is made by its Central Committee. There have been substantial public criticisms of this system even from one of the presidential hopefuls, Moses Nagamootoo. Whatever system is applied on this occasion, there is no doubt that methods of doing business in any organization, including the PPP, have to evolve to take into account new ideas and new trends. And things are changing. These public comments would have been frowned upon ten years ago or less.
This debate going on in the UK holds important lessons for Guyana and our political parties. The debate in the contest for leader revolves around what new policies should emerge after the late 1990s. Political debates in Guyana continue to be consumed by the history of the fifties, sixties and thereafter, endlessly seeking justification for parties’ actions and contextualizing their relevance for today. Politicians interpret and re-interpret the past to justify today and the future. We resurrect policies of a bygone era (rice flour) to solve problems which continue to bedevil us.
Tony Blair came to office in 1997. The economy soared and Britain enjoyed an unprecedented level of prosperity. Just over ten years after, as the pack of cards came tumbling down under Gordon Brown’s leadership, we now hear about the flaws in the Blair/Brown economic policies. This is an identical rehash of the Margaret Thatcher story.
We in Guyana cannot move forward unless we identify and understand the new challenges facing us and developing countries today. Cheddi Jagan pioneered the way and charted the course. But when he came to office in 1992, options were limited and the IMF prescriptions had to be accepted, albeit with significant modifications. The public sector was draining the treasury and no money was coming in from economic activity. While privatization was resisted, the public sector had to be substantially reduced. Cheddi Jagan was prepared to adapt to realities.
Cheddi Jagan’s value does not lie as much in the actual policies he outlined in decades past, important though these were and relevant though some of them are today, but in the fundamental guidelines which should inform such policies, such as the elimination of exploitation, disease and hunger about which he spoke and wrote in depth.
Today, the computer age, climate change and the Brazil option have crept upon us while we are still quarrelling, almost every day, about the sixties, endlessly justifying the visions of our past leaders and who can go to Buxton. We in the PPP don’t have to join in these sterile engagements. That does not mean that we should not defend our leaders or correct falsehoods. But history will do a far better job than we can. “US Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story,” by Stephen Rabe; “Caribbean Labour and Politics,” on Cheddi Jagan and Michael Manley, by Perry Mars and Alma H. Young; and the soon to be published “Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power: British Guiana’s Struggle for Independence,” by Colin A. Palmer will be far more effective in the long run to define Cheddi’s honourable place in history having died in 1997. We are still awaiting academic studies of Burnham, the man described as a visionary “before his time” and whose words were “literature.” He died in 1985. (www.conversationtree.gy).