There are people in Cayman who will argue – in private conversation at least, if not publicly – that while Alden McLaughlin may be a man for the people, he is not a man of the people.
It is a perception that the new leader of the People’s Progressive Movement opposition party sought to counter in his first public speech as the party’s leader on 12 February at George Town’s Mary Miller hall, and it may be the greatest hurdle he has to overcome if he wishes to become Cayman’s new leader in 2013.
“There are those out there, and perhaps there may be some here tonight, who believe that I cannot and do not identify with their struggles,” McLaughlin says. “I want to set the record straight on that. I was born and grew up in George Town; there were no silver spoons in that house.”
“I grew up chasing cows…and cutting people’s lawns if I wanted extra money. Never believe that I don’t understand what it is to have to struggle.
“If we ignore the voices of any group in our society, it is at our peril,” McLaughlin says. “The voices of discontent in Cayman are increasing…they are getting louder.”
By any measure, the George Town representative’s personal accomplishments, as he approaches the mid-way point of his third term in the Legislative Assembly, are impressive.
He completed A levels at Cayman Prep and the Cayman Islands High School; after a short stint in the civil service he started law school in 1983 and joined the firm Charles Adams and Co. (now known as Adams, Ritchie and Duckworth) to complete his articles in 1988; just five years later he was a partner in the firm.
McLaughlin was first elected to the Legislative Assembly in 2000 and following the government “coup” he became a founding member of the People’s Progressive Movement. Four years later, the PPM won control of the government and McLaughlin became the education minister in 2005.
He was the driving force behind the construction of Cayman’s two new public high schools, which are now expected to be completed by 2012.
He was one of the main proponents of the country’s constitutional modernisation, which led to a referendum and a new governing document in 2009. He received Her Majesty, the Queen of England’s designation later on as a Member of the British Empire.
But in 2009, McLaughlin’s party, in the same election during which Cayman’s Constitution was approved, lost the general election. Although he kept his seat in George Town, five of the 10 sitting LA members in the party did not.
One stepped down prior to the election; the other four were voted out.
The loss showed up a few glaring problems that McLaughlin says the PPM will have to solve in the next two years.
The rap on the PPM leadership during its time in office was essentially that the party took an overly consultative approach, employing an agonisingly slow decision-making process.
McLaughlin says this led to the public perception that the PPM was “weak” and unable to act when things got tough.
“We must dispel the notion that the choice for leadership of this country is between those who are weak and right and those that are strong and wrong,” he says. “We have let our detractors define who we are.”
One of the biggest definitions placed on the PPM , McLaughlin says, is that the party tends to be ‘anti-expatriate’ workers.
McLaughlin says that the PPM would seek to redefine itself over the course of the next two years as the political party of inclusion.
“There is little doubt in my mind that [anti-expatriate claims] played a role in our defeat at the polls in 2009,” he said.
For instance, the opposition leader notes that many people in the country have ended up blaming the PPM government for the creation of Cayman’s seven-year term limit on foreign workers residence.
The Immigration Law states that any foreign worker must leave the jurisdiction following seven years of continuous residence, unless they are given leave to remain through key employee status, grants of permanent residence or marriage to a Caymanian.
That seven-year term limit, often referred to as the rollover policy, was created in 2003 and implemented in January 2004, prior to the PPM government taking office.
McLaughlin says it was the United Democratic Party government that brought the policy into being, and that at the time, the rollover period was two years, not one. When the PPM took office, it shortened the period to a year via amendments to the law in late 2006.
“You have heard and seen our chairman tonight,” McLaughlin said to the 12 February gathering, referring to PPM chairman Anton Duckworth. “Does he sound like he was born here?”
Duckworth, who has Caymanian status, moved to the Islands in the mid-1970s from England.
“How can anyone seriously believe that Anton Duckworth would be associated with…a party that is anti-expatriate?”
To further counter the anti-expat perception, McLaughlin has invited anyone who is a legal resident in Cayman and has been here for at least five years, to join up with the PPM
“I want to assure everyone…there is no bigotry in the PPM, we are only anti-bad government,” he says.
Another major issue the opposition party faced in the last election was the perception that its candidates were old, out of touch, and – to a certain extent, irrelevant.
“There is the impression that the PPM has become dated,” he says. “Young voters must become more prevalent, and we must become more relevant, more important to young people.”
Denise Miller, who leads the Young Progressives – the youth arm of the PPM – says that the issue is not necessarily that young voters aren’t interested in politics. In Miller’s view, the younger crowd talks about political issues all the time.
“Immigration, poverty, crime, unemployment, the cost of living and protection of the environment are all political issues,” Miller, 27, says “But the minute I mention politics, I almost always get a cringe and lecture about politics being lame, full of corruption and completely irrelevant to our lives.
“Many…might think that young people don’t care about politics, but every day thousands of people in this country turn to the person next to them and talk about the shooting, stabbing, mugging that occurred the night before.”
Often, the suspect in these cases is a young person, Miller says; a young person that is unemployed.
In some of the more recent crimes that have occurred on Grand Cayman, both the suspect and sometimes the victims, are young people.
An American couple, robbed on Barefoot Beach earlier this month, described one of their assailants as a teenager; a suspect arrested in the weekend shooting at an East End home was 18-years-old, three students were also the victims of an alleged robbery near the Truman Bodden Sports Center that occurred in broad daylight on a Monday.
Miller says part of the job of politicians and government is to provide opportunities so the younger generation doesn’t turn to crime and instead becomes more involved in their communities.
“When we don’t invest in the education of our young people, we end up with unemployment problems and unemployability problems,” she says. “Yes, there are those of us who went through that very same system and succeeded in spite of it, but don’t all those kids deserve a chance to succeed?”
McLaughlin says, if political parties want to get younger voters involved, and to take some ownership of the political process, it has to focus on the issues younger people care about.
“It is really not party politics…that people are unhappy with,” McLaughlin says. “It is the politics of the parties they are complaining about. We must change our politics.”
There have been early signs that several high-profile independent candidates will seek election in the next cycle, possibly even forming a third organisation ahead of the expected 2013 vote. Whether that third group is to be called a party or a team is immaterial, McLaughlin says.
“The truth is, Cayman is used to party politics, whether most people realise it or not,” he said. “There is nothing inherently wrong with party politics.”
Losing the plot
McLaughlin says he believes the PPM lost in the 2009 elections largely because of its own failings as an organisation, not because the victorious United Democratic Party was the better choice.
“By any standard…the [United Democratic Party] government must get a failing grade,” he says. “In every demographic and every district, there is dissatisfaction with the UDP’s performance.”
The problem the opposition party now has, McLaughlin says, is that voters could opt for a third choice – independent candidates, or even a third political party – in 2013.
“At present, the PPM is not automatically the people’s choice,” he says, adding that voters in his own party might not like to hear him say that so bluntly.
The new PPM leader also advocated that supporters start now on campaign for the 2013 general elections, which are expected in May of that year.
“We must push and shout and agitate and do whatever we have to do to be part of the national debate,” he says.