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We need a strong opposition
Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012

By Derren Joseph
February 01, 2012

Recently I ended up at a fundraiser organised by Democrats Abroad here in the UK. As one would expect, the event was to raise funds for the re-election of President Obama in this year's US Presidential elections. Those of us in favour of campaign finance reform in Trinidad and Tobago are impressed by the relative transparency in the campaign finance process in the US, and in the UK. Foreigners are not normally allowed to donate to political parties and all contributions over a certain threshold are a matter of public record. In fact, I was only able to attend the event as a guest of my wife, who is a US citizen and a registered Democrat.

Keynote speakers at this fundraiser were a senior campaign strategist for the Labour Party here in the UK as well as the MP for a South London constituency. The strategist reminded me of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in George Clooney's recent political masterpiece—The Ides of March. This movie is required viewing for anyone who wants to understand the challenges facing Western politics in general. I managed to have a brief chat with the campaign strategist later that evening on developments here in the UK and in the USA.

His view was that the UK Labour Party/Opposition Leader Ed Miliband was a really bright guy but he seems to be struggling to stay connected with the grassroots of the party. He is being seen as a bit aloof in his approach and may actually be alienating important Labour Party supporters as a result. A weak Opposition is problematic because for our parliamentary system to properly function, we need a cohesive and focused Opposition. As I listened to him speak, my mind began to drift back to Trinidad and Tobago politics. I have heard many also describe the PNM/Opposition Leader as aloof. They say that he is not easy to speak to, is impatient and does not come across as approachable at all. Ironically, the PNM leader should be becoming more and more politically attractive as the number of unforced errors by the governing coalition increases, but this does not seem to be the case at all. Every day I note that even the most hardcore of Government supporters in the newspapers and on-line are at a loss to defend some of the administration's missteps. The fact that people must now be paid to speak well of achievements is testimony to the present public despair. The recent Nacta poll confirmed the level of disillusionment with the coalition Government even though the ratings of the Prime Minister remain relatively high.

Yet in the midst of all of this, the fortunes of the PNM are not moving up. Day by day, concerns about a lack of transparency and poor accountability increase. The strange thing is that the present Opposition leader is one of the few MPs in recent memory to speak out against his own Government on issues of transparency and accountability. Returning to the UK, the campaign strategist was saying to me that so much of politics was about the ability of a candidate to connect with the common man or woman. We were remembering the heyday of Bill Clinton, who despite so much controversy remained popular partly because of his ability to connect with people. Perhaps the same can be said about our present Prime Minister in Trinidad and Tobago—she has an enviable ability to connect with people from all walks of life. The anecdotes I hear about the PNM leader portrays an interesting personality. There are social events where he is seen remaining apart from the crowd rather than walking around, mingling and engaging potential supporters. There are people who have approached him and tried to strike up a conversation with little success. From reports in the printed press and in on-line forums, he seems unable to rally certain opinion leaders within the PNM to his side.

Can the PNM leader unite his own party and win over the wider population? Can he revive a party whose brand has been described as damaged? Some political pundits suggest that he is the only person holding himself back. The recent improvement in his approval rating (latest Nacta poll) shows his potential but he needs to push harder to unite the divided opposition in a way that does not compromise his principles. The effectiveness of our system of governance depends on a strong opposition. My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country and my region. Despite our current challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope that we will all enjoy a brighter tomorrow.

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