When I informed my colleagues that I had been invited to address this Conference today, they all spoke in unison - 'Prime Minister, you have to go! You have to go St. Lucia and stand in solidarity with a sister Labour Party’. One stalwart of 60 years standing in the Dominica Labour Party said to me 'Prime Minister, Labour is under threat. Your generation of leaders has to work together to keep the movement and the cause alive'.
That sentiment, Ladies and Gentlemen, Comrades and Friends, is what has inspired my thinking as I reflected on what message I would bring to this grand conference today. Let's deal first with what we all know Comrades and Friends - we are living in perilous times. We are in the throes of the worst economic down-pression, not depression, but down-pression, known to modern man. When you reflect upon the challenges that we have confronted in the past six years as a region, it is an absolute wonder that the economies of these small islands, banded together as the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, are still afloat. We have done remarkable to be striving and in some instances thriving, in these difficult times. I look around the table at OECS Heads of Government meetings and what do I see? I see Labour, Comrades and Friends! I see this wondrous Labour Movement in the Caribbean to which we have all subscribed.
In so doing, I see the answer to the question of 'how have we done it?’ We have done it, Ladies and Gentlemen, because we have stuck, in the main, to the bedrock principles of Labour!
Many persons may tend to take the reality and the simplicity of this statement for granted, but the last four years in particular have been especially challenging for Eastern Caribbean States, given the known difficulties that sister CARICOM countries such as Jamaica and Barbados in particular, have been experiencing. Labour has been at the helm in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Labour has been at the helm in St. Kitts and Nevis. Labour has been at the helm in Dominica and Labour was thankfully brought back, in the nick of time, in St. Lucia!
Were Labour Parties not at the helm in the majority of states in the sub-region at this crucial time in our developmental experience, only heaven knows the carnage that would have taken place with respect to our social policies and the lives and livelihoods of thousands.
We walk a very thin and tight rope in the Caribbean between social upliftment and fiscal prudence. The economic purists would tell us we have a responsibility to do away with certain programs as a result of their drain on the national purse. They say 'You cannot afford this concession to the poor' and 'you need to do away with that benefit to the elderly'.
But those of us born and nurtured in the bosom of Labour, are inspired by the works of those who have preceded us. Very often, as the executive arms of government, we sit in Cabinet meetings and reflect upon how the forefathers of this Caribbean Labour Movement would have handled a situation.
Would they really have decimated the social sector in order to satisfy the folks in Washington? Would they really have reversed decades of progress made on behalf of the elderly and the most vulnerable in society?
The answer to these questions is a resounding "NO", and that is why, in-spite of the turbulent economic times in which we live, every single Labour Government in the Caribbean has stuck steadfast, to the goal of balancing economic prudence with social responsibility.
We know our economies are under threat, we know several of our social programs are a seeming financial albatross around our necks...but how can we turn our backs on those who gave of their blood, sweat and tears to build these societies? How can we remove the social safety net afforded the poor and dispossessed in our midst?
Many of us in leadership positions in the Labour Movement were born into poverty; we grew up hard and we grew up difficult...but we made it because of the enlightened policies of E.T. Joshua of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, V.C. Bird of Antigua and Barbuda, Robert Llewelyn Bradshaw of St. Kitts and Nevis, Edward Oliver Leblanc of Dominica and your own George F.L Charles of St. Lucia.
They blazed the trail for Ralph Gonsalves, Denzil Douglas, Gaston Browne, Roosevelt Skerrit and Dr Kenny Anthony of St. Lucia...and that is why, Ladies and Gentlemen, Comrades and Friends, it is so difficult, and so heart wrenching, for any of us to tear down those social safety nets and turn back the hand of time on the gains that have been made for and on behalf of the working people of these Eastern Caribbean islands.
But my central message to you today, Ladies and Gentlemen, is not that. You knew that all along. My simple words of admonition to you today, as a sister governing Labour Party in the Eastern Caribbean, is that Labour is the only party with the solutions to the serious challenges which confront our people; and therefore if we love our country we owe a duty to ensure that Labour remains in positions of influence and authority, at the highest level, at this critical juncture in our history.
I am not saying WE will not one day lose office. I am not saying others will not one day be worthy of consideration. I am saying to this Conference of the St. Lucia Labour Party today and to Labour governments and Labour people around the region, that these small economies and societies in the Eastern Caribbean need Labour NOW and need Labour to remain in office, to see us safely through this period of difficult economic challenges. If these islands are to successfully emerge from the chasm of this global economic recession, with our social safety nets intact, and if the poor, dispossessed and elderly in our society are to be protected and be no worse off 10 years hence, the Labour Parties of the Eastern Caribbean have got to band together and stay at the forefront of national policy decision making.
I am saying we have to remain loyal to the cause, spirit and mission of Labour!
I am saying we have to re-establish ourselves as the best hope in troubled times...
I am saying we have to rally together, to keep at bay, those whose interests do not dovetail or even coincide with those for which the Labour Movement was started and on which it flourished in the 1930’s to 1970’s.
Ok, so you will ask me, 'Comrade Skerrit, how do we do this in an environment where money is tight? How do we achieve this in a climate where we are battling to make ends meet and where we are barely able to maintain what we have, far less introduce new policies and concessions?’
In a single word, the answer to that question is - education! Indeed, to be more precise, it's sensitization!
The problem with some Labour governments in the region today is that daily they are performing miracles, but they are keeping the reality of this, very close to their chests. Populations are not being made to know and understand the tremendous sacrifices that are being made in these difficult times to stave off the advice of those who say, in essence, 'throw the poor under the wheel’ .
On a daily basis in the sub-region, for sure, leaders are having to dance around the advice and admonition of those who say 'send home a few thousand workers; cut benefits to retirees; increase the rate of direct taxation, cut out the freeness, make parents and children contribute a little more to education, impose a handling fee at the general hospitals, etc, etc, etc.’
We would be the most popular leaders among the international financial institutions and the international technocrats in the hemisphere were we to stick by the book and cut the social budget. But that is not how we were taught or indoctrinated by the fathers of this movement! That is not what inspired Ralph Gonsalves, Denzil Douglas, Roosevelt Skerrit or Kenny Anthony to enter this struggle several decades ago.
We came from our various professional backgrounds to join the cause of promoting and uplifting all echelons of the society. Now, today you have poachers lurking around this region, entering politics for all the wrong reasons. In the case of Dominica, a man does not like Skerrit, so he worms his way into the leadership of his party, merely to take on and take out Skerrit. That's what some opposition leadership in these troubled times in the Caribbean have been reduced to.
But as Labour parties in Government at this time, we have to remain focused on the issues at hand. We do not envy those at the top who have plenty. We equally have nothing against the barons of big business thriving.
But just as we do not believe there should be a cap on how much wealth some can amass, we also do not believe we should permit a lowering of the floor, on which those at the bottom stand.
Our founding fathers raised the floor for working people in the Eastern Caribbean and as their heirs, we have a bonded duty to ensure that we remain in office, with our hands fixed firmly on the plough, to defend and maintain the gains that were made. Also, to effect continuing improvements to the quality of life of those in the lower and middle echelons of society.
Comrades and Friends, it is against that backdrop that we come now to what the late George Odlum would have called 'the red meat of the matter'. How do we survive as Labour governments in these troubled and troubling times?
The simple answer is - we must stick close to the people! But of equal importance is the need for us to broaden our base and reach further into the bowels of society.
It is not enough for some of us to yearn, and settle, for 52 per cent of the popular vote in an election. It does not augur well if we but barely snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We have to strive as Labour Parties in the sub-region to return to the once pivotal designation of natural parties of choice. We have to become and remain the people's parties.
In this regard, there's work for both leadership and support base to undertake. Firstly, from the perspective of party members and well wishers, we have to recognize and appreciate that over the past 20 years our natural support base has been eroded, for various and varying reasons.
We have to reclaim that territory! We need to recognize that the votes of known Labour party supporters alone, are not enough to keep us in office. Yes, we have to reward loyalty. Yes, the Parson must christen his "pickney" or children first.
Yes, we must ensure that those who suffered in the wilderness, while their party was in opposition, are given an opportunity to thrive and progress.
But, equally important, we need to safeguard against marginalizing those whose silent support also made our victories possible. We have to make our political homes welcoming and comfortable for those who wish to “cross the River Jordan”.
Just as is the case in Dominica, a traditional Workers Party supporter in St. Lucia, who no longer supports or wishes to support the Workers Party, must not forever be dubbed as "workers". Some of us in Labour make it too difficult for persons to become "Comrades". The doors of Labour in the Eastern Caribbean must become more welcoming to non-traditional support, if these governments we have the honor to lead, are to stay afloat.
Just as Labour supporters come and go from the Labour Party at will, so too is the likelihood of a high attrition rate into and away from the Flambeau Party, especially in times such as these when their leadership and candidate bases are so weak.
Some call it the politics of inclusion...I see it as the politics of people and the politics of nation building. Labour Parties in the sub-region need to strive to become the natural and national parties of choice. We need to strive to create an umbrella sufficiently large for every single resident of the country to fit.
We need to attract people to Labour, through both our policies and our behaviors. Labour does not belong to the few hundred that gather each year for the party conference. Labour does not belong only to those who gladly don their red shirts in support of party and candidate.
We must reach that level of consciousness in the Eastern Caribbean where and when Labour is made accessible and welcoming to every single resident and well wisher.
If, as activists, you try to identify the source of votes you got in your constituency last election, you would discover that there is about 20 per cent of such said votes you simply cannot, with certainty, locate. It is those 20 per cent mystery votes that helped to give us the victory last election and that are needed to secure us another victory next time around. Therefore, we must avoid the notion that Labour supporters and well wishers are only those who walk around flying a flag. This is not to say that the flag wavers are unimportant. Indeed they are very important. But flag flying by itself is not sufficient for victory.
Comrades, when you see your Leader and Parliamentary Representatives do certain things that appear strange and politically nonsensical to you, I urge you today to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Ascribe to them a level of political competence and astuteness to make informed decisions. You may not know everything about everyone, therefore, it is advisable sometimes that you take for granted that your leaders know what they are doing.
By the same token, political leaders must reflect an understanding and appreciation for the sensitivities and insecurities of those who feel let down, when seeming poachers glaringly benefit from policies and practices of the party and government, at the apparent expense of those who had been in the trenches for years.
In instances such as these, the base has every right to be concerned. As leaders, it's a delicate rope we walk, but walk it, we must! I said earlier, the key to all this is sticking close to our people. National political leadership in 2014 is a 14-hour a day job. There is the tendency by some new politicians, for I dare not use the word young, to relate to political service as they did in their law or other professional practice. That is not going to work in 2014!
People must feel the love! They must sense and know that you are aware and that you care! Persons close to the party, such as those assembled here today, must not read of major policy changes and decisions first in the newspaper. Adequate mechanisms must be established for them to be consulted initially and then once the decisions are made, to be informed and to be armed with the necessary information to go out, spread the word and defend the cause.
In this regard, Labour parties in the sub-region need to look urgently at the reformatting of their operational structures. Time was, when the bulk of our work as Labour parties could and would have been carried on by volunteers. I am here to say today, that era has ended.
Just as we strive each day as Ministers to modernize and revolutionize the appearance and functioning of government and our ministerial offices, so must we do the same for our political party secretariat and respective constituency offices.
There's need for greater vibrancy and efficiency at the party level. We need to put systems in place to better serve our members. Dissemination of Information must no longer be a rare treat...it must become a staple in our daily diet.
Several Labour governments in the sub-region are losing the public perception battle, because they keep their goings on as parties in government too close to their chests.
A Prime Minister or Minister of Government speaks and it is assumed the entire country has heard, has understood and is so guided; when in reality, the information dissemination process should only just have begun.
For the most part, as Labour parties in the region, we are not winning friends and influencing people as we should, because we are not properly marketing the tremendous job we are doing to keep the economies of these islands afloat and to maintain a deserving quality of life for our people.
So I am here today to tell you it's time to get back to basics. A few years ago Tony Blair successfully marketed what was dubbed in Great Britain as "New Labour".
I am calling today for a return to "True Labour". I am not saying anything is wrong with the New Labour concept, but I am wedded to the philosophies of the founding fathers and pioneers of the Labour struggle.
I want Labour Parties in the sub-region to rekindle the passion for fighting against and staving off the threat posed to advances made on behalf of working people.
In this regard, we must unmask and expose the pretenders and the predators. There are some curious individuals lurking around the Eastern Caribbean in the name and under the guise of opposition politicians. We in the respective Labour Parties must sensitize our populations to just who they are and the grave threat that some pose to the social and economic recovery of these islands.
I want Labour Parties in the sub-region to open their doors and be more welcoming to outsiders, fence sitters and political cross dressers. We must become the natural parties of choice in these troubled times.
We successfully piloted the region through seven very difficult years and we are more than capable of leading it back to sustainable growth and prosperity.
These times are challenging times...but they are also exciting times. I have every confidence in the capacity of these islands to weather the economic storms. I have every confidence in the ability of Dr. Kenny Anthony and his Cabinet of Ministers to successful navigate the treacherous terrain.
We need now as Labour Parties to blow our trumpet louder. We need to make known our achievements and explain the difficulties we are encountering along the way.
The philosophy of Labour is best for the Eastern Caribbean at this time and we must not be afraid to say it. Those who say all parties are the same and all politicians are the same are not seeing distinguishing features in philosophy. We need to do something about that. We need to get back to and inculcate the philosophy of the Labour struggle to new and emerging leaders. And as we remain anchored by our philosophy, we must adapt our policies and our way of doing things to reflect the realities of the second decade of the twenty first century.
Leadership is not easy – it never was. It requires always that we remain faithful to the people that we lead and their welfare and their well-being. And in so remembering and living that credo, as members of this great movement, we must never forget the words of John C. Maxwell; “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”
As long as we not only talk the talk but walk the walk, and remember why we are here in the first place, we shall emerge at the other end, able to recite those immortal words from the Book of Timothy: “We have fought the good fight, we have finished the race, we have kept the faith.”
Blessings always to the St. Lucia Labour Party and to the great Labour Movement of the Caribbean.
I thank you!