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EDITORIAL - Antigua: putting political ghosts to rest

Published:Wednesday | November 28, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Little noted, and mostly unremarked, a significant era in the English-speaking Caribbean's modern political history closed this week.

In Antigua, Lester Bird, 74, was soundly beaten for the leadership of the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) by his deputy and the ALP's chairman, Gaston Brown.

That Mr Brown, at 45, is a generation younger than Mr Bird is noteworthy, as was the fact that the contest was one of an old warrior facing a direct challenge to his rule by a young, vibrant challenger.

But there was something far more profound about this contest that marks it as epoch-changing.

First, it is the first time in its 66-year history that the political organisation that evolved into the ALP will be led by someone other than a Bird. Further, the delegates of the ALP, 56 per cent of whom cast their ballots for Mr Brown, rejected Lester Bird's appeal to "have another go, and after that, I will pass the baton on".

Labour-leader decade gone

In so doing, the delegates completed the transition from the era of that pioneering generation of labour leader politicians, including this country's own national heroes, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante; Barbados' Grantley Adams; Robert Bradshaw of St Kitts and Nevis; Guyana's Cheddi Jagan; Ebenezer Joshua of St Vincent and the Grenadines; and Eric Gairy of Grenada.

All of these leaders are long dead, and none was the contemporary of Lester Bird. His connection to them was through his father, Vere Cornwall Bird Sr, with whom they shared the Caribbean political stage and from whom Lester Bird 'inherited' the ALP, which he led from 1994.

V.C. Bird was one of the founders of the Antigua Trade and Labour Union (ATLU) in 1939, in the wake of the labour uprising in the Caribbean during that decade, and became the union's undisputed leader in 1943. In 1946, he won a seat in the Antigua legislature under the banner of the ATLU's 'political committee', the forerunner to the formal party.

Years together

From universal adult suffrage in 1951, except for five years from 1971, and again since 2004, the ALP and the Birds have been at the helm of government in Antigua and Barbuda - the senior Bird, then Lester Bird as deputy, then de facto PM before his formal assumption of the job.

Lester Bird's elevation was effectively an unchallenged inheritance, once a commission of inquiry into corruption in the 1980s had declared his only real rival, V.C. Bird Jr, to be "unfit for public office". Antiguans, as especially supporters of the ALP, were seriously invested in the name Bird and in the larger-than-life reality and myths of the dynasty's founder.

It is significant how often, during the recently leadership campaign, that Lester Bird, even as he touted his own record, invoked the name of his father. In a sense, Lester Bird perceived himself as building on a history and legacy, but as the history and the legacy themselves.

It is in that regard that it is understandable that Lester Bird - his father retired in his '80s - did not prepare the ALP for transition and became engaged in an unseemly clutch for continued leadership. In the end, the ALP did not buy that it was he, because of his "perception" and "vision", who deserved to continue the party his father built.

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