Thu | Jul 18, 2019

Seventy years of universal adult suffrage

Published:Sunday | November 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
A policeman receiving advice from an Electoral Office of Jamaica official at the Greater Portmore Police Station on Thursday, December 22, 2011.-Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer

Thursday, December 14, would be D-Day. The day when every Jamaican over 21 and who was not in prison or the lunatic asylum could vote. Universal adult suffrage.

A new Constitution for Jamaica had been proclaimed by Gazette on Friday, November 17, 1944, to come into effect the following Monday, the 20th, which also doubled as nomination day for the elections.

Governor Arthur Richards led the promulgation of the new Constitution before a massive crowd estimated at some 40,000, representing what The Daily Gleaner called "the masses and the classes", at South Parade. "The enthusiasm of the massive crowd knew no bounds," the paper reported.

In the aftermath of the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, the Jamaica House of Assembly had voted its own dissolution and Jamaica had been under Crown Colony government since then. While there were some elected members to the Legislative Council under a very limited franchise based on property ownership, the British governor and his council held absolute power.

The new constitution, allowing some self-government, established a legislature composed of an elected House of Representatives and an appointed Legislative Council made up of a mix of members appointed by the governor by virtue of their office in the colonial administration and some non-officials. There was an Executive Council chaired by the governor with five members (three officials and two non-officials) drawn from the appointed Legislative Council and five members designated as 'ministers' drawn from the elected House of Representatives.

In this evenly divided Executive Council, the chairman and governor held a casting vote! 'Ministers' had portfolios on which they reported, but no executive power. They were only 'half-government'!

Norman Manley had complained to the Lord Moyne-led Royal Commission which had followed the 1938 riots that elected members of the Legislative Council of "having powers that can only be used for destructive criticism"!

The political parties, three main ones, were ready for the first electoral showdown in December 1944, in which every registered adult Jamaican could vote. But in a field of 130 candidates vying for 32 seats, there were 68 independents, more than half the slate of candidates.

"Jamaica," historian Colin Palmer writes in the closing chapter, 'Party Politics', of his new book, Freedom's Children: The 1938 Labor Rebellion and the Birth of Modern Jamaica, "boasted three major political parties by the middle of 1943. The ideologically socialist PNP had been in existence for five years. Formed in March 1943, the JDP [Jamaica Democratic Party] was described by The Daily Gleaner as the 'conservative party of Jamaica, having a policy intended to appeal at the same time to business and to labour, to planter and to peasant'. The JLP was the third major party, characterised by The Gleaner as 'Mr Bustamante's Party' and 'therefore ... assured of a numerous following, regardless of its programme, because of the personality of its leader.'"

In Palmer's book, the well-financed Jamaica Democratic Party was established as the refuge of the Jamaican elite fearing the proclaimed socialism of the PNP and the pro-labour stance of the party Bustamante was proposing after his BITU broke away from affiliation with the PNP in 1942. The three vague basic principles of the JDP were to increase production and the income of the island and ensuring a fair distribution, to obtain a constitution likely to bring happiness and contentment, and the elimination of inequalities, injustices, and grievances wherever and whenever found.

No party fielded candidates for all 32 seats. The JDP fielded only nine. Surprisingly, the PNP put up only 19 candidates and none at all in the county of Cornwall. The JLP had 29. The others were independents or attached to smaller parties.


When the dust of election day had settled, the JLP won 22 seats, with 41.4 per cent of the vote. Independent candidates won five seats with 30 per cent of the vote. Independents have never had it so good ever again! Something which some of us long for.

The PNP won five seats with 23.5 per cent of the vote. All the JDP candidates lost their deposits, the party securing only 4.1 per cent of the popular vote, despite its heavy spend on campaign advertising. The party thereafter vanished from the political scene. And no third party has ever managed to gain a foothold. Norman Manley himself, leader of the PNP, head of Jamaica Welfare and the country's most prominent barrister, lost the St Andrew seat he contested to the little-known JLP candidate, Dr Edward Fagan.

It was a bitter campaign of wild charges and countercharges, but as the pro-Manley Arnold Bertram notes in his Jamaica Elections 2007 piece for The Gleaner, 'The elections of 1944', "Bustamante's sweeping victory in the elections of 1944 reflected the response of the masses to his deep understanding of their yearning for an immediate improvement in their material existence. The empathy of his message from the platform made his appeal irresistible."

Mr Manley himself, in a mixture of recognition of "the enormity of the transfiguration that the working people experienced during the election campaign and on election day" [Palmer] and of sore loser's complaint, wrote: "As it was, in the last week the Labour vote, comprised of the uneducated and socially depressed mass, hardened and a sudden miracle of class-conscious solidarity was wrought. 'Vote Labour' became a magic slogan. It ran like a fire through the island and cast a spell on all the poor labourers and small farmers alike. The mass vote, unconscious of its own betrayal, was governed by a sagacity on the political plane that would be beyond praise but for its emotional origin, and its final dependence on a blind acceptance of the order of The Leader."

More generously, Norman Manley could say later, "There came the time when Sir Alexander made what history may come to regard as his greatest contribution to democracy in Jamaica, and this was the formation and creation - for it really was an act of creation - of the Jamaica Labour Party which led to the establishment of the two-party system in Jamaica ... . It is said that when God was creating the world, God said 'Let there be light', and there was light. And when Sir Alexander was creating the Jamaica Labour Party, Sir Alexander said, 'Let there be a Jamaica Labour Party, and there was a Jamaica Labour Party."

And writing to former Governor Arthur Richards, now Lord Milverton, in early 1955, expressing his fears about Jamaica's future, Mr Manley penned, "Here in Jamaica we are passing through difficult times. If the two-party system can survive, then we will come through safely, but if not, I wouldn't like to prophesy what will happen." Some 59 years after that missive, the two-party system is holding firm.

One-tenth of the 1944 ballots were spoilt, undoubtedly mostly because of the high levels of illiteracy among the voting population. A literacy test for the vote had been hotly debated from the time of the Moyne Commission. The final decision was against, and symbols were assigned to the parties and to independent candidates to make recognition easier. The head and the bell have survived. There was a voter turnout of 58.7 per cent, 389,109 persons casting ballots out of the 663,069 registered electors. For the first time since 1944, voter turnout fell below this initial level in the 2011 election at 53.7 per cent.

Constitutional changes in 1953 and 1957 progressively expanded ministerial powers and the power of the elected House of Representatives to direct the affairs of the country while reducing the powers of the governor and the Executive Council. A full system of Cabinet government emerged with the 1957 constitutional changes with full internal self-government running up to 1962 when the country gained independence.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to