Seventy-five years have not proved enough to take away from Labour the shine and glory of the fight it originally engaged itself in. This fight was about emancipation of the people and lifting them from out of the deep economic and social morass in which they were finding themselves at the time. It was about giving them hopes and aspirations that their conditions interdicted them from even contemplating. It was about opposing prevailing powerful economic and political forces which saw things like the free movement of people, universal franchise and access to education, taking on responsibilities of state except by those associated to the propertied class, and uniting workers for vindicating their fair share, as anathema to the established order. It is not surprising that parties like the MMM and the various splinter groups that have emerged from it, which also set themselves out from a left-leaning platform, almost regret it that it is not they who have carried forward instead such a momentous agenda of social and economic reform.
It is not by reckoning the number of years however that one judges the real journey of a political party. “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety”: this is how Shakespeare made one of the characters describe the enduring sway and influence of Cleopatra over her surroundings in ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. Shakespeare goes on to say: “for vilest things Become themselves in her: that holy priests Bless her when she is riggish”. The test of a political party comes rather from whether it is able to withstand the necessary obsolescence which time imposes on all and whether it is capable of reinventing itself to embrace the changes that come its way towards the undiluted fulfilment of the mission that gave birth to it. So doing, a party refuses to become enthralled by the forces of history choosing rather to be itself a maker of history. The many landmark achievements of Labour over the past nearly eight decades show that it has not allowed itself to be straight-jacketed into the ever-changing mantras that stifle initiative and progress. Independence was its peak achievement but that was one only among the many milestones it hit during this long journey.
It would be totally unfair to assert that Labour would have discriminated in favour of particular groups in the wider stride of its history of public decision-making. Look at the numerous leaders of society of different hues and colours who have been occupying the helm of decision-making in the various spheres of economic and social life of the country the past 75 years, in both the public and private sectors, and there is tangible proof that it opened up the doors to everyone just the same in every field. It could perhaps have done more to lift up those who could not jump onto the wagon of progress and integrate into a unified framework those who saw their interests diverge from Labour’s pursuits. It still has time to do so if the scope and scale of its past 75 years of pursuits has to be reckoned with. Its history of transcending parochial interests will teach it how to aim high rather than allowing itself to be caught in the intrigues of self-interested courtiers who have changed sides as it suited their convenience. Those who have come to Labour without the inherent convictions which animated its founders will only dilute its fundamental over-arching outreach that has been the party’s hallmark over the past 75 years.
There have been moments in this long journey when the party was almost given up as something of the past. That was in 1982 when it lost all seats in the general election after a number of years during which the economy was beset by serious external adversities. In the 1980s, its role and influence risked being drastically reduced in the coalition governments of which it formed part to the point of becoming a negligible component of local political forces. That it revived despite such downturns shows that the appeal of its inherent ideological strength and its track record with the people was able to redeem it. Leaders who succeeded were able to resuscitate the liberating values of the party since its creation despite much abandonment by those who then considered it a sinking ship. Even in those depressed moments for the party, no single party or coalition of parties came on stage that could successfully substitute for it in the political spectrum to the point of washing it out altogether. This means Labour carried conviction enough with the people for the core values it had stood for from the beginning: its moorings were solid enough to withstand the tides. This has not always been the case for various political parties in Mauritius which have simply disappeared once their charismatic leaders were no more.
If Labour has survived for so long, it is because it has had a string of leaders who have taken over the party leadership convincingly and at great risk to themselves on occasions. Inspiring leaders like Maurice Curé, Guy Rozemont, Emmanuel Anquetil, Renganaden Seeneevassen, Pandit Kistoe and similar others, who had the flame and the fire in them to wage impossible wars of opinion in those oppressive days, were succeeded by towering figures like SSR, SVR, SSB, Dr Guy Forget, SHW and SKR who had vision, tenacity and flexibility to find the middle-of-the-road solution without allowing themselves to be unduly swayed by bigots.
They were persons who were not deterred by the fact that wearing a red shirt was viewed as amounting to a reprehensible political statement in some quarters or that inhabiting the rural areas was seen as a sign of backwardness compared with the urbanites just as it was considered that making use of the inherited language in public was a badge of social inferiority. The team was strong and adversaries had respect for the views each one of its members held individually. The party was seen as being formed by several men and women who had ideas of their own on matters of public interest. As politics became increasingly communally polarised after independence, however, it proved difficult for Labour to gather in its ranks a greater number of powerful leaders from the general population. Many fortune-seekers migrated to Labour from other parties, diluting the sterner mettle which its founders had infused in the party. This factor has tended to show it in a light which does not match its frame and construction since the beginning. No doubt, continuing communal marginalisation has prevented the party from securing the wider embrace that was its natural birthright.
What will be the fate in future of left-leaning politics that Labour has incarnated for so long? The present leadership has a major challenge to face in this regard as the world is no longer the same as it has been the past 75 years. Nor will it be the same. Globalisation in one form or other has come to stay. Even small economies have to fight it up in competition against giant economies like China in specific compartments of production. They have to strike a manageable balance between the provision of welfare on the one side and sharpening the economy’s competitive edge on the other because there are trade-offs between the two. That could mean giving up part of the welfare programs which have carried the imprint of Labour all this time, without abandoning it altogether however. Welfare should become the new tool not for winning elections but rather for creating additional economic space, e.g., by providing better balanced and directed education and training at higher levels to those having the potential, managing space efficiently by incentivising orderly town and country planning, improving local food self-sufficiency, enhancing the social environment or the natural joie de vivre of the population, stabilising expectations which have gone beyond decent bounds, stopping to waste money repairing past wrong decisions, etc. Political clientelism will also need to be relegated if only to win back the necessary wider endorsement by the population of its new outreach in such a context.
It also means equipping the country with fighters who have the capability to face the global war of survival of the fittest. The platform of production has to be shifted to, amongst others, much higher productivity levels, as well as a serious concern about quality and dependability on us as suppliers of high quality goods and services and the active creation of a diversified hub of local world class entrepreneurs taking on outside competitors who are the best and most brilliant in their fields at the global level. More global business partnerships should see the light of the day as the way forward. The leadership not only of Labour but of all Mauritian political parties are therefore challenged by the quest for preserving a pristine tension-free quality of living of the people coupled with a relentless drive for implanting our own compatible production in new areas of technology which global markets are headed for. The party will need bring about changes in its structure to recognise the new age of technology and information.
This kind of objective is not achieved by placating sectarian lobbyists and compromising on governance. Such lobbies have not signed up a single edifice of progress yet in the national architecture and it can be presumed they will do none either in future. We cannot get to the goal of the new millennium by lowering standards of education and training for a higher pass rate or enrolment level or by increasing our insular isolation in culture baskets which thwart the necessary global outreach.
All this shows that the party will have tougher choices to make than it has done so far without giving up its socialist soul. Given the various sensitivities that have been nurtured for so long, some of which stand in our way to a better future, political leaders will need strong will and imagination today to reconcile the differences that have been nursed for long to the country’s detriment. Can they assemble all our talents in one mighty pool so that artificial barriers of caste and community, rich and poor, friend but corrupt, ambitious but incompetent and similar contradictory combinations which threaten to shrink our economic and social space, are no more? Labour can take the lead again to fire the imagination of the people with far-reaching transformational objectives to attain to mark the turn of the new century just as it has done during the past 75 years.
* Published in print edition on 18 February 2011