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Unravelling of a nationalist party

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 19, 2022


When the People's National Movement started its mission in 1956, its primary responsibility was to uplift all members of the society, particularly the underclass, and to ensure that each party member was treated fairly. It also held out the promise that each member could rise to the highest levels of the party.

Although the founding members understood that genuine democracy implies one-man-one-vote, they also recognised that equity (the quality of being fair and impartial) should be the base of the party's mission rather than the ubiquitous notion of formal equality. They believed that the promulgation of formal freedoms is an empty gesture if the necessary political structures were not in place to achieve them.

Therefore, the party instituted a delegate system in which every party group sent a delegate to the annual convention to vote for the party officers. Such a procedure ensured that a poor party member from La Brea or Las Lomas had the same chance to be a part of the party's leadership as the richest aspirant from Port of Spain or San Fernando.

The party reforms of 2013, particularly Article 20, changed that original postulate when it gave every member the right to vote at all levels of the movement without putting in place a structure that would ensure that a woman from Las Lomas could compete or even emerge victorious in these elections.

Such reforms gave advantages to some party members over others. It makes the more affluent and better positioned members more likely to succeed than the less-fortunate members. It's almost as though the party enshrined the commandment on George Orwell's Animal Farm into its constitution — "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" — when it adopted Article 20.

Two Sundays ago, the party held its annual convention. It declared that 14,000 people attended the convention. While the membership of the party grew from 81,000 members in 2014 to 105,000 in 2022, less than nine per cent of the party members voted during the three days allocated for voting. Three thousand people voted on the first day; 5,000 on the second day; while 800 people voted on the last day of the convention.

Overall, Dr Keith Rowley's vote declined from 18,000 in 2014 to 8,424 in 2022, although it is estimated that the "Leaders in Service" Team spent over $5 million in their election campaign. Rowley received 171 votes from his Diego Martin West constituents. He received the most votes from San Fernando East (557) and the least from the Diego Martin East constituency (53). No political leader should be pleased with this showing but, then again, the prime minister's party was defeated in his boyhood home, Mason Hall, Tobago, at the THA elections.

A similar lack of confidence was shown in the leadership abilities for Stuart Young, the political leader's protégé, who was elected chairman of the party, and is the presumptive forerunner to take over the party when Rowley retires. He received a total of 8,389 votes: 158 votes from his constituency members (two more than Rowley) and 47 votes from Diego Martin North East, Colm Imbert's constituency. His most votes came from La Horquetta/Talparo (396) and the least (zero votes) from Tabaquite.

In August 2018 at a political meeting in Point Fortin (and on other occasions), Rowley said every leader must have a Gary Sobers on this team, meaning an all-rounder who could fill any gaps (meaning tasks) that he might have been unable to handle. He is also reported to have said that anyone who wished to become the leader of this country needed to know about the energy sector. He then placed Young in a position to get as much exposure to the energy industry as possible. First, he appointed him as a minister within the Prime Minister's office, then the minister of National Security, and at present Minister of Energy. Since then, Young has been a part of most of the energy missions in which the prime minister has been involved.

Does this give an undue advantage to Young in any fight for the leadership position?

Colm is one of the most resourceful members of the Cabinet. He was the chairman of the party for the past four years. However, he was neither consulted nor included in the team that "Leaders In Service" named. He was shown a list in which Young was proposed as the chairman. I wonder if this slight had anything to do with the paucity of votes that Rowley and Young received from Imbert's constituents?

The PM must be careful about imposing Young or any member of the moneyed class on the party, especially when the party's base consists mostly of black people. Of the 220,000 votes the PNM received in the last election, 190,000 came from black people. No party leader should take them for granted.

When the PNM came into conflict with the West Indian Federal Government, Dr Williams asserted: "What appeared to superficial observers as a conflict of personalities in the inglorious career of the Federation stemmed in reality from a conflict between a powerful nationalist idea with roots deep in a people who were the most cultivated and politically conscious in the area." (History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago)

That miscalculation led in part to PNM's decision to leave the West Indian Federation.

Rowley and the PNM's hierarchy should not underestimate the intelligence of its ordinary members who, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, declaimed: "Toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing,/ Onward through life [they] go; ...Thus at the flaming forge of life/ Our fortunes must be wrought;/ Thus on its sounding anvil shaped/ Each burning deed and thought."

Longfellow was one of Dr Williams's favourite poets.

Prof. Cudjoe's email address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe