Although it went 35 years without winning an election, the Progressive Labour Party (www.plp.bm) is Bermuda’s oldest political party, formed by black activists in May 1963 with a mandate to improve quality of life for the island’s blacks. While its socialist-leaning platform called for better health care, education, and housing, the PLP’s main target was electoral reform and the eradication of racial discrimination. Until the late 1960s, voting rights in Bermuda were restricted to property owners, which eliminated the majority of the black community, as well as most women of both races.
Equal voting and universal adult suffrage finally came about on May 22, 1968, when Bermuda’s first election was held. The United Bermuda Party (www.ubp.bm), founded in 1964 and loosely based on the British Conservative party, formed the first government under the island’s new constitution, winning 30 of 40 seats. The party held on to power for eight successive electoral victories, finally losing to the PLP in 1998 in a landslide 26-to-14 defeat. With a founding power base of white, old-family merchants, the UBP was long perceived as a party dedicated to representing the interests of Bermuda’s whites; indeed, Bermudians only half-jokingly refer to the virtual “cabinet meetings” held in the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, a whites-only male bastion comprised of Front Street’s “Forty Thieves”—wealthy shopkeepers who shaped the island’s destiny. That history has been hard to shake, despite the fact that in the last 25 years, the party’s ranks have been bolstered by middle-class blacks, women, and conservative Portuguese, and two of its leaders, Sir John Swan and Pamela Gordon (the first woman to hold the post of premier) have been black. Indeed, today, most UBP MPs are black Bermudians.
Given the emotive path of party politics, therefore, the PLP’s decisive 1998 victory, which claimed 54 percent of the popular vote and catapulted the party into power for the first time, was a euphoric milestone for Bermuda’s black majority population. The election result also won support from whites who believed democratic change would help heal long-held racial frictions. The party has been increasingly criticized for drifting from its labor roots, but with the UBP proving a surprisingly lackluster opposition, pundits predict Bermuda’s demographics, namely the island population’s 60 percent black majority, could ensure that the PLP, reelected in 2003 and 2008, holds on to the reins of government for a long time to come.
Bermudians love talking politics, and everyone from the multinational CEO to the horse-and-buggy driver has a viewpoint, which they usually are more than eager to share. Perhaps due to the comfortable average standard of living, however, the island is mostly anchored in political apathy when it comes time to put words into action. Political protests are almost nonexistent, so the public march along Front Street in 2004 by residents demanding action on the housing crisis was a visible testament to the problem’s severity. Occasional grassroots petitions—including largely white-driven campaigns against changing electoral boundaries and against independence from Britain—have won enough support to merit a few days’ headlines, but Bermudians generally tend to choose the status quo, as long as their pocketbook benefits. There have been perennial calls for a new political party that would aim to accomplish what neither the UBP nor PLP have been able to over the past century, including unifying black and white communities and appealing to young voters. A third party, the National Liberal Party (NLP), was formed in the 1980s with that intention, but although it scored a few election seats, it dissolved a decade later. Independent candidates have also occasionally won seats, but the current government has no minority MPs. The Gombey Liberation Party, literally a one-man band staged by St. George’s resident Gavin Smith in 2003, was more entertainment than crusade, though he did garner 16 votes (2 percent) in his East End constituency.
The island’s critical lack of affordable housing, declining tourism, increasing crime, systemic problems in public education, and environmental destruction continue to be the most substantial national problems facing the current government. With growing calls for public policy that nurtures more sustainable development, it looks likely these will remain Bermuda’s fundamental challenges in the years to come.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition