KINGSTOWN St. Vincent – As the New Democratic Party (NDP) ship began to run aground in 2000 amidst mass political unrest, then prime minister Sir James Mitchell decided that the party he founded in 1975 needed a new captain. He gathered his Cabinet at his private home and asked who was willing to take over the wheel.
Only then works minister and former South Leeward representative Jerry Scott along with Arnhim Eustace, then minister of finance with just two years of political experience, expressed interest in leading the party that came to office in 1984.
NDP Vice-President and then party public relations officer St. Clair Leacock, speaking on radio last week about Eustace’s leadership of the NDP, said that while some “backroom” politics might have sent Eustace to the helm, it is not true that he was “handpicked” to replace Sir James.
Eustace has said publicly that he was not too pleased with the system that resulted in his initial election as president of the NDP.
Back then, only the party’s members of parliament were eligible to elect the party leader. And since coming to office, Eustace has changed the party’s constitution system to allow delegates at the party’s convention to elect their leader.
“Who nah kno’ nah kno’ sometimes you kno’,” Leacock said in dialect. “This notion about Mr. Eustace being handpicked by Sir James is not quite true.”
Leacock said that with the NDP “under siege” by the then opposition Unity Labour Party (ULP), the NDP leadership gathered at Sir James’ residence for daily strategy meetings.
“And I recall distinctly the occasion when Sir James came to that realization that for the NDP to move on he would have to give way. He looked at all his men … ‘Who is prepared to step forward to take over this party?’ He asked that question and none of them felt, at the time, that they were strong enough to take up the mantle of that challenge.
“It was Arnhim Eustace and Jerry Scott — who had an outstanding record of political service … who came forward and offered themselves against the background of all the challenges that NDP would have had to solve.
“… that was no easy decision to make. Because at that time, Arnhim virtually had it all made. People were seeking him out in the Commonwealth and other places to pay him big bucks to work overseas and he could have chucked it all up and say ‘This ship is sinking, I [am] rolling.’ Jerry Scott could have taken a similar decision. So they volunteered themselves against difficult times,” Leacock said.
Leacock, who was in December 2010 elected as Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown, said “there well may have been other backroom politics” after the meeting at Sir James’ house.
“But the point is, they volunteered to be on the bridge at the time when the ship needed a captain,” he further stated.
Leacock comment came as he defended Eustace’s leadership of the NDP in the face of call by some of his own supporters to quit as party leader.
Eustace, who was prime minister from Oct. 27, 2000 to March 28, 2001, has also been representing East Kingstown since 1998.
However, the NDP has lost three general elections under his leadership, including in 2010, when the party increase its hold in Parliament by four seats but still came one seat shy of taking government.
Leacock praised Eustace’s “democratic” approach to leadership and his efforts to rebuild the NDP.
“The work that Mr. Eustace has done over the last 10 years for the New Democratic Party to puts it where it is here now, I don’t know of many people who would have been able to do that work. And he needs to be credited for the amount of work,” Leacock said.
He further said that Eustace, because of his training and experience in economic matters, is best position to lead this the NDP at this time. According to Leacock, no member of the NDPs leadership will be so “silly” as to run against Eustace for leadership of the NDP at this time.
“And I know he has that trust and confidence and I know he has the ability and I know he deserves the support of us because I know he has worked … hard to keep the New Democratic Party in place,” Leacock said, adding Eustace, “like any of us, … has his imperfections”.