Labour Party: A Sad Anniversary and a Missed Opportunity

As readers go through this article we can already imagine the cries of protests coming from certain quarters about how easy it is to “be wise with the benefit of hindsight”. While it is undeniable that hindsight has shed a new light on a good number of facts and therefore shaped the judgement of political observers post the general elections of December 2014, the honest reader will remember that this paper sounded notes of warning quite early in the wake of those events.

Anniversaries are traditionally a time for celebrations. Unfortunately for the Labour Party, as it prepares to mark the 80th anniversary of its foundation, celebrations would probably not be anywhere near the top of the agenda. The Party finds itself in a very bad place, having been reduced to the status of almost a “pariah” party after the last general elections. Under other circumstances this would not have mattered (it has been there before) as indeed there is a lot to celebrate regarding the historic role of the Party in the socio-political transformations of this country over the past 80 years.

The problem is that the rout which the Labour Party suffered was mostly self-inflicted and the root causes have not been exorcised. It is very difficult to imagine the present-day Party delving into the most glorious pages of its history and putting a claim as the depository of its feats and successes or pretending to have anything in common with those who founded and led the Party since 1936 upto, say 1968.

The Party founded by Dr Maurice Cure and supported by such stalwarts as Messrs Emmanuel Gérard, Dr A.G. Jeetoo, J. Emmanuel Anquetil, Issop Assenjee, M. Genevieve, F.L. Marie, F. Courtois, Pandit Cashinath Kistoe, S. Barbe, G. Felix, C. Curpen, M. Abel, Sookdeo Balgobin and P. Manrakhan, and later by Pandit Sahadeo, Guy Rozemont and Renganaden Seeneevassen set in motion a juggernaut along the arduous road to socio-economic transformations in favour of the masses of workers and other dominated classes. Along this long and gruelling road to freedom and recovered dignity, many sacrifices were made, such as during the strikes of 1937 when the strikers were fired upon and some, including a pregnant woman, Anjalay Coopen, lost their lives.

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, as Leader of the Party, will be credited for having, through a protracted struggle, brought independence to the country in a peaceful transition and without the strife and other tribulations associated with it in many other colonies. This is even more remarkable in a multiracial country where the official opposition to the government garnered the support of nearly 44% of the electorate who voted against accession to independence.

The 1968 to 1982 era was, shall we say, much less appreciable ending with the first ever 60-0 defeat for a party in a general election, after a hapless Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam had to lead the weakest government ever during his last mandate.

Under the circumstances one could expect a party on the occasion of its 80th anniversary to go through some introspection and deliver at least an objective post-mortem of the events which have brought it to the dire situation in which it finds itself today. For reasons which are easily understood, this is most unlikely to happen. Failure to deliver such an analysis leaves the Party with the only option of “looking at the way forward”.

The bad news here is that if we go by a recent article by political analyst Dennis McShane, about what usually happens to political parties which are ousted from power in mature democracies, this may prove even more problematical. Indeed in the article the author states that there seems to be what can be described as an “iron law of electoral politics”.

After having studied election results in most of the major democratic countries in Europe, the article contends that there is a recurrent pattern – so obvious that it has been referred as a “law of democratic politics” according to which “other things being equal a party stays in opposition roughly in ratio to the time in which it has been in power”.

Interestingly or worryingly enough for the Labour Party, when one applies this “law” to Mauritian politics, it does quite accurately reflect our own electoral history since independence. Labour-led governments ruled the country for 14 years between 1968 and 1982 before being thrashed out of Parliament. This was followed by 13 years out of power when MSM-led governments had the day.

In 1995, to the great dismay of SAJ, the Labour Party at last acceded to power again but only for a single mandate of five years, followed by, lo and behold, another five years in opposition. The two general elections of 2005 and 2010 saw the Labour-led alliances come out as winners. Then came the fateful December 2014.

Whether it’s the “iron law of electoral politics” at play or simply coincidence, the fact remains that the projection drawn from such a recurrent pattern – namely, that the Labour Party must gear itself for a decade of political wilderness – does closely reflect the “general sense” of many political analysts and even quite a significant number of the party’s supporters.

Of course the above proposition ought to be taken in a rather light-hearted way although the facts do provide some food for thought. There may even be a ray of hope for Labour. The “iron law” does come with a caveat of “other things being equal”. In McShane’s analysis one of the things which could go wrong is “the very exceptional case where a new party in power collapses spectacularly, because of a severe economic or constitutional crisis”.

It is evident that this is exactly what many Labour supporters are hoping for. To any impartial observer, it is obvious that the Party will not seize the opportunity offered by the occasion of the 80th anniversary to get into a frame of mind of introspection, deep thinking, open debate and eventual admission of guilt and responsibility for the catastrophic showing at the last general elections – all this is not the stuff of a party congress.

Instead it clings to the hope that that the government will eventually become so unpopular that it will collapse or at least reach its term in a state of utter discomfiture. As a consequence the disappointed electorate will vote them out of power and the country will end up with another cycle of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

* Published in print edition on 19 February 2016

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