Members of political parties are, effectively, members of a team collectively pursuing a common goal—securing political power. As with any team, cohesion—or at least the public display of it—is a critical factor in success and its absence can do debilitating damage. In political parlance we call this party loyalty.
My take on party loyalty is that it refers to one actively embracing the philosophical underpinnings and goals on which that party is based: your worldview is largely in tandem with the direction that party wants to take the country. Such loyalty transcends personalities, leaders and otherwise, because the focus is on the work and mission of the party. Mature parties have mature internal debates; members examine issues and policies and try to develop a consensus around the key issues. Such parties reject the hyperbolical and do not demonize those who dissent. Collectively, this helps to sustain loyalty. Its absence weakens it.
All parties have a critical mass of members who exemplify party loyalty. Similarly, all parties also have members who reflect what I refer to as “conditional loyalty”: those who support the party only if their specific interests or desires are met. We have seen supporters of this ilk and it doesn’t take much to conclude they are more concerned about self-interest than any other interest. When developments do not turn out as they wished for there is a predictable public response, followed by a departure from the public stage.
There is less clarity about the meaning of party loyalty when a party does an about face on a long held policy without consulting its supporters and members have to reassess where they stand. I found myself having to confront this in 1998. For thirty years my party, the PLP, argued against the acceptance of Queen’s awards since they were a manifestation of an outdated and demeaning colonial apparatus. I embraced this position prior to 1998 and still do today. The fact that successive PLP governments have made such awards places me at odds with them on this point but creates no distance between my vision for Bermuda and the core principles on which the party is based. The litmus loyalty test here involves the weight one places on specific policy differences.
While some supporters may have moments of quiet reflection when they question whether their political—and perhaps moral—compass is still aligned with that of their political party, others reflect blind loyalty. This type of party loyalty will defend virtually any position of their party or their leader; they also tend to be the sort of supporter who will hurl invective and ad hominem argument in their wars of words against the opposition, whoever that may be. While admired by some elements in the party and therefore encouraged, these supporters actually make it difficult for the party to expand its electoral base.
This brings us to the issue of personalities, policies and loyalty. If the purpose of a party is to either win or to secure power there has to be an honest assessment of the personalities best able to help in this respect; and those who will hinder. Here, loyalty is a necessary but insufficient component. Placing the wrong people in position can erode public confidence and thus electoral support. While some may view this issue as a daunting one, given the multitude of factors parties have to consider, it becomes a lot less complex when you revert back to the core party philosophy and direction.
Loyalty to party is a mantra often heard and demonstrated on our little island home; and it helps to strengthen our democracy. Alongside these loyalists, though, is that decisive group of voters who move from party to party depending solely on their assessment of the political parties and the issues. It is perhaps ironic that the least ideological, the least loyal voter ultimately holds the balance of political power.