Prime Minister Owen Arthur has named 15 January as the auspicious date when the citizens of our 166 square miles of paradise will exercise their democratic right. Mr. Arthur and the Bees (Barbados Labour Party) hope to be returned for an historic fourth term. The Dems (Democratic Labour Party) and their leader, David Thompson, believe that “better days are coming”. In the rum shops, on the beaches, in the Z cars (taxis), on the Holetown to Black Rock bus, people are furiously debating the issues. Will they “smut de Bees” and be “wid Dem”? Or are they “movin’ wid Owen”? It’s too close to call.
The Husband is completely obsessed. Every manifesto pledge, speech, advert and debate is dissected and chewed over. And over. And over. It would just about be okay if he were quietly obsessive. But no – he can’t keep his fingers off the laptop. I keep opening the local papers to find he has written yet another piece commenting on economic policy. Luckily no one takes a blind bit of notice.
He would be kept in check had I not, through acquiescence over time, lost the right to complain about this crazy behaviour. I should have complained way back when, for our first date, he took me to a debate on Union Carbide’s horrific industrial accident in Bhopal. I should have complained when, for our second date, he suggested we go for a walk through the streets of London. It just happened to be with 25,000 other folks all singing “Free-eee Nelson Man-del-la”. (Yes, we are that old). And I should have absolutely ditched him when he whispered, “come spend the night with me” only to find this meant an overnight stint in an illegal occupation of the LSE over divestment from SA. I nearly landed in jail in my best black lace knickers.
So, as the Borg would drone, “resistance is futile”. And I have to admit election fever is infectious. Take last Thursday night. A constituent at our local Bees meeting claimed the panty “tariff” was currently about 84% while that for boxer shorts was only 10%. Indeed she and her daughter went into Bridgetown and $200 later had bought a couple bras but “we eh get no panty yet”. She added that, “ jus cause de PM and Clyde Mascoll [a Minister] doh wear panty, doh mean dis ain’t ah serious problem”. Not a single candidate has come forward as a panty man.
My pal J. and I are thinking of forming the “zero-rating panty” movement. J. is also threatening to cast her vote for the People’s Democratic Congress. They are fielding a team of two candidates. For thirty seats. Both Rastas have promised that the PDC will abolish all taxes, as “dey is an abomination to Jah”. I guess it would work something along the lines of, when meh say de Highway 1 ah need fixing, or the Queen Elizabeth Hospital ah need fuh overhauling, Jah go provide. These brothers give those of us who inhale really bad press.
Election fever is not just in the meetings. It is on the TV, radio and Internet. A few nights ago I sat on my front porch and listened to a whole Dem meeting that was taking place half a mile away. I heard every word as if I were in front of the speakers. The radio stations are playing party jingles 24/7. In the UK the jingle would be some boring voice over to music. On this rock, we know how to rock. Mighty Gaby (who once slept in my bed, long story) booms over the radio waves,
Owen, go beat dem again.
He goin’ lickin’ he [Thompson] tail like rain.
Owen go beat dem again.
And the Dems are not to be outdone. I can’t get the jingle “Better days are comin’, by and by” out of my head. And the candidates all have catchy little signature songs or strap lines. Take Mr. Haynesley Benn. He lets you know that “Help is around the Benn” if he unseats the PM in St. Peter.
While I have no vote I should declare an interest. Ms. M. is a good friend from undergrad days and an MP. She knows I am keen to see her in action. Last night, I was tucked up on the sofa in PJs watching Law and Order when she rang to say she was heading to a Speightstown rally. I pulled jeans over my pajama bottoms and crawled into a faded old T-Shirt and headed out. The Husband stayed with the kids. Besides, this is 2008 and even in Bim we enjoy live video feed on the party website.
The rally was not what I expected. I went with all my big city prejudices that this would be a party with lots of flag-waving supporters getting drunk on free Banks beer. Instead the stage, sound and lighting set up was as sleek and professional as any event in Hyde Park. Big screens allowed the crowd to enjoy a good view of the platform from where ever they were. Parking was adequate and orderly. Food and non-alcoholic drinks were on sale at designated points. Police were present but very discreet. Some seating was provided but most people had brought their own portable beach chairs and set up for the evening. There was a real cross-section of people. I saw old timers and I saw young women who will be voting for the first time. The car park was full of Lancers and Corollas but there were also BMWs and Land Rovers.
The crowd was attentive, well behaved and earnest. The noisiest heckler was an old fella who would periodically pipe up, “Talk de talk, man! Talk de talk!”. In neighbouring Trinidad this would never happen. At a rally there a politician could not finish a sentence without major heckling that may or may not be on point. You might be discussing education and a Trini in the crowd will yell out, “Sister, yuh lookin’ real nice tonight” or “Where de food? I only come ‘cause I hear dey sharing roti”. Or, someone in the crowd would attempt to steal the politician’s thunder by standing on a box and offering a full, alternative policy solution.
Since Ms. M. was fashionably late I caught a couple of the warm-up acts. One speaker used crowd response to say words that an upstanding Bajan gentleman would never utter. He shouted, “Owen is ah known pedigree! He is ah bare tor bred! But what is Thompson? He eh no tor bred. He’s ah.” Pause. The crowd yells, “Jackass!”. He laughs. “I cah hear yuh!” The Crowd is even louder this time. “Jackass!” This was Bajans behaving badly.
Ms. M. finally arrived an hour late. I barely recognized her in “combat” gear. She looked like Che Guevara meets Saks Fifth Avenue. Her street fighter get-up consisted of a brown hat pulled so low it would have covered her eyes were they not already covered by dark shades. At 11pm. The look is completed with brown cotton/silk combat trousers, a bright green, and a little too expensive looking, waterproof jacket, and a yellow T-Shirt with a green trim. The BLP colour is red. The DLP colour is yellow. I made a mental note to check her wardrobe before she goes out again.
But she can work a crowd. Ms. M. took the mike and walked around acknowledging people who had waited hours to hear her speak. She remembered the names of so many of her grass roots supporters. “Cyril, what you doing quite in St. Peter boy? You should be in St. James”. Later when a woman brings her a glass of water, “Cynthia, God bless yuh. Meh throat dry.” Her talk wrapped macro policy in micro language. She explained why Barbadians needed more housing stock as young people set up on their own earlier than they used to. A young man and his mother in the audience served to illustrate her point. She looked directly at them and started. “George, when yuh find a girlfriend.” The whole crowd could feel George cringe. “Don’t worry George, yuh go find one.” The crowd erupts in laughter at poor George’s expense. She continued, “And when yuh get a girlfriend you will want to move out of your mother’s house and set up on your own and start your own family.” And then she moved into what the government would do to help George and his special friend set up their love shack. She was engaging, funny and still managed to convey gravitas. My girl.
As I drove back home I could not help thinking about the contrast between this rally where politics was real and engaged as opposed to the New Hampshire primaries I had watched the previous night. In New Hampshire we had the insanity of a discussion about whether Clinton’s tears were real or not. And if that were not enough we had the further insanity that these debatable tears were not shed for some cause like the war in Iraq or the homeless. These were her tears for herself. I am reminded of the Bajan cautionary saying, Yuh know what yuh got. But yuh don’t know what yuh goin’ get. We are just a small rock but we seem to have a better grasp of what is at stake in the exercise of universal adult suffrage than our "big up" northern neighbour.
January 10, 2008