First, the bottom line: At the United Workers Party’s 39th annual convention last Sunday, Allen Chastanet, for the third consecutive time, easily strutted off with the position of political leader! Guy Mayers was elected party chairman; Gale Rigobert, deputy leader. Sarah Flood-Beaubrun gracefully swallowed defeat. A not-as-graceful Mary Isaac chastised former PM Stephenson King and stole the limelight. The former prime minister would later tell the media he walked out of the convention in protest against Isaac’s demonstrated lack of respect for him and his supporters. He said he would not be pushed around by newcomers, not after years of loyalty to the UWP through thick and thin. Others might say King’s middle name has nearly always been ‘Pushover’; or is it Heavy Roller?
The guest speaker was Sir James Mitchell, former prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who may have inspired the Mary Isaac line that brought Stephenson King and his satellites to their feet. In effect James said it was normal for political leaders who’ve lost an election to step down; normal everywhere else but in the Caribbean. Sir James also touched on a number of issues including a personal peeve of mine: those long immigration forms to be filled out by CARICOM nationals (including Saint Lucians) when returning home. He called for them to be scrapped to save the taxpayers’ money and time. But trust Jadia JnPierre-Emmanuel, in the aftermath, to say her boss, the prime minister, had already promised to do just that. As if we didn’t already know about Dr. Anthony’s record when it comes to keeping his promises.
And now you’re probably wondering how I rated the convention that had been advertised as the panacea that would heal all that had ailed the UWP from 1997, the 2005 election victory notwithstanding. I’ll put it this way: politics stinks. And nowhere is the stench as offensive as in our neck of the woods. Little wonder that more and more young people refuse to get involved, an undeniable tragedy. Sunday’s exercise, for me, was at times amusing, sometimes nauseating. Which is not to say I did not on an occasion or two permit myself to see a glimmer of hope, albeit short-lived.
For starters, the periphery of the convention hall, the Gros Islet Secondary School, at times threatened to become a mélange of street theatre meets fish market meets calypso tent. One commonality, of course, was the boozy, heavy tongues of over-zealous supporters that sometimes exploded expletives all over the place. I found myself stuck at times between monitoring my recorder inside the hall and catching up on the theatrics outside. At least two big-time yellow birds had their feathers ruffled. Rufus Bousquet and Spider Montoute, who had ducked the heat inside, mingled instead outside. But this was like jumping out of the pot and into the fire as not even well-intentioned constituency faithfuls, some willing to offer more than just the liquid spirit of Saint Lucia, could spare them some of the taunting. They appeared hot around the collar—the Choiseul shabin’s scars perhaps more apparent.
Inside, Stephenson King was welcomed by roof-raising applause as he walked in with Egbert Andrew, his attaché when King was prime minister. King chose to sit with members of his constituency, rather than onstage with fellow party honchos.
The afternoon session started with a segment of invocation, praise and worship with the animator Anselma Calderon leading the party into yellow-bird favourite songs such ‘Bind us Together’. Her calls for warm embraces and praying to the Almighty for the ushering in of the “right” leader drew thunderous applause. The cheers were louder only when party leader Allen Chastanet was introduced. He started off by reflecting on where the party was headed and where it had been. One “weakness” he underscored was that for too long the party had entrusted leadership to too few. “And while it is unquestionable that these men of integrity created stability for this country,” Chastanet said, “the fact is every great organization must have a succession plan.” Coming out of a period of what he described as chaos since 1997, the UWP leader said the party had gradually transformed with renewed foresight, a vision and a mission. He referred to the lack of affordable healthcare, ever-rising unemployment, equal opportunity for education for every Saint Lucian child, the IMPACS report and the morale of police force. To remedy some of the current woes, Chastanet said, a UWP government would be committed to giving life to Sir John’s plan for Saint Lucia: stimulating development and economic growth for the whole island. He also blasted the government’s foreign policies and what he described as “jobs for the boys” under the Citizenship by Investment programme. “This government is unethical; it is immoral; and we must change this government as soon as possible,” Chastanet said.
He added that the present government is riding on the UWP being divided. “You are wrong!” Chastanet shouted, promising a more united and prepared UWP—and victory against “an uncaring government”.
Guest speaker Sir James Mitchell recalled his relationship with Saint Lucia, including his first job as a teacher at St. Mary’s College. He also revisted his well-known close friendship with the late Sir John, and their vision for agriculture, the banana industry in particular. He took the opportunity to shill for the Privy Council, in the process recalling a case he had finally won against the government of St. Vincent. He advised that if the island governments wish to abolish the Privy Council in favour of the Caribbean Court of Justice, the decision should come out of a referendum.
“We have a problem with succession all over the Caribbean,” Mitchell said. Citing the current situations in Trinidad, and in Barbados when Sandiford took over, he said it seemed to be the norm in these parts. “But look at what happened in Canada with Harper. He congratulated the winner and then surrendered the leadership of his party.” He recalled similar examples in Great Britain. “So what is wrong with us in the Caribbean that we do not know when to pack up? I want to say to you, Mr. Chastanet and the United Workers Party, I want you to promise me that if you lead this party into defeat in the next election, you will offer to resign.” Was this last statement the inspiration for Mary Isaac’s shot at former PM King?
Sarah Flood-Beauburn was magnanimous in defeat. “We are united in one common purpose,” she said, “and that is to remove the Saint Lucia Labour Party from government.” She also called for the return of the party’s youth and women’s arms before the general elections.
Newly-elected chairman Guy Mayers announced on Sunday “the end to the sideshows and shenanigans” and appealed to party supporters to get aboard the train to victory. This being a party convention, the troops were told what they wanted to hear. Doubtless, the UWP leadership, the election candidates especially, will be hoping the jubilation will continue throughout the months before polling day—and afterward!