Is Holness man enough to rule?
The sight of recycled octogenarian Mike Henry in Andrew Holness' shadow Cabinet, as well as that of a number of other oldsters, might not convey the image of energy, dynamism and hope that an opposition leader would want to signal.
Even before the new but not substantially different slate was announced, Observer columnist Mark Wignall wrote of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in last Thursday's paper: "When a political party becomes the joke of every gathering and the butt of every joke, one would believe it is the best time to pack it in ... and just walk away and disappear into the sunset."
Here's the paradox: Two national polls, one by Bill Johnson (Gleaner) in October and the other by Don Anderson (TVJ) show the JLP ahead of the People's National Party (PNP), with the Gleaner poll showing a nearly 2:1 margin of Jamaicans who said Andrew Holness would do a better job of running the country than Portia Simpson Miller, and the Anderson poll finding the JLP with an eight-point lead.
So the polls are showing the JLP ahead of the PNP, but insiders in the JLP have been publicly and privately expressing grave doubts about the party's chances of winning the next general election. Karl Samuda recently publicly expressed his doubts, saying the party was not ready, and even more recently, Daryl Vaz called for Edward Seaga and Bruce Golding to rescue the party and give it a chance to oust the PNP administration at the next polls.
His concern is raw politics: "For me, it's all about winning. There is no bad blood, but there is no second prize in politics." Vaz says the party is not organised to win the next election, and a number of insiders seem to share that view. Despite what the polls are saying. It's not just Vaz or other known Audley Shaw supporters who are expressing doubts about Holness' winnability.
You hear it on the streets and on the cocktail circuit, and you see the letters in the press: There is this perception, this narrative, that Andrew Holness is just not ready, that he is not appealing, that he does not have the wow factor, that he is too weak, that he's just not hot. People just don't seem to believe in Andrew Holness or feel him. I don't share their view, and I am trying to understand people's angst or just indifference toward him.
The Gleaner, for example, is clearly not impressed with him, and he has featured not too favourably in several editorials, the most recent of which was Friday, January 23, 2015 ('How Mr Holness can save his leadership'): "If, indeed, Mr Vaz represents a significant current in the party, which some insiders say is the case, it is clear that more than one year after Andrew Holness appeared to have decisively beat back Audley Shaw's challenge, not only has he failed to stamp his authority on the JLP, but the leadership issue remains unresolved."
My own information suggests to me that the Gleaner editorial writer has got it right. All is not well inside the JLP, and Andrew Holness still has significant opposition to his leadership. It is against that background that you must assess his shadow Cabinet and Mike Henry's surprise involvement in it. It is political horse-trading and expediency (meaning political good sense).
I don't share Mr Holness' critics negative assessment of him. I reject the view, for example, that he is vindictive, petty and insecure. That view is shared by some whom I know and respect and who have had close association with Holness.
As I retorted to one inside detractor on Wednesday night who was tearing into him, revealing that in desperation, he was reappointing Mike Henry: That, at least, shows that he has the emotional self-mastery and emotional intelligence to reach out to those he knows are sceptical about him. Other leaders are so narcissistic and vituperative that, Samson-like, they would even forgo the expediency needed to save their organisation, just to see their enemies vanquished. Holness does not have that insecurity or that self-absorption. I believe he is mission-oriented.
He has brought back Delroy Chuck, Mike Henry, Ruddy Spencer and Bobby Montague, though he knows he is not their number one guy. Bobby has been very diplomatic and publicly decorous, but Andrew knows where his heart is. It is a slur against Andrew to say that he is consumed by spitefulness. Samuda has reportedly insulted Andrew at Central Executive and told him he is not winnable, and Andrew has continued to work with him. I guess some would say that shows just how weak he is!
Last weekend, while pressed by a television reporter, he refused to even mildly criticise Daryl Vaz, demonstrating his discipline and emotional self-mastery. I don't say the man is an angel who could never harbour a grudge. Mark Wignall wrote last Thursday: "Andrew Holness is said not to be a man whom (sic) forgives those who gave him the pain of his recent past." But later that very day, Holness smashed that view by naming some of those very persons to his shadow Cabinet. (Tufton is also back in party leadership.) I find many of the criticisms of Andrew Holness unfair, unjustified, malicious and trite.
I try to seriously assess the criticism that he is weak as opposition leader, and I can't see its justification. I find his parliamentary presence strong, even strident. He takes on relevant issues and he displays the manufactured outrage when required. He has been a responsive opposition leader, speaking out on many issues and being on the ground at critical points. I disagree with some of his positions, of course, but you can't justifiably say the man has been laid-back.
He has played the usual politician's game of gallery pandering, and Audley's leadership challenge has definitely made him a tougher, more vehement leader. Yes, he has not played much street politics (and the one time he did with that bus fare issue, he failed miserably.)
It is a fact that Audley Shaw would 'tek it to Portia' more and engage in more ray-ray politics, which many of our people define as good opposition politics. Audley is more cantankerous, loud, feisty, scandal-mongering - exactly what many want to see in an opposition leader. And Andrew can come nowhere near Audley in terms of sheer platform mastery and rhetorical skills.
But what Jamaica needs is more sobriety and less stridency; more substance and less style. I am not among the Andrew haters or detractors. But the objective reality is that he has a number of things stacked against him. One, he has a huge money problem. The moneyed classes are not in love with him. One very big businessman asked me more than once, "Who Andrew knows who can give him $10 million?" The moneyed people don't believe in Andrew Holness and don't believe he has what it takes to run Jamaica.
And Andrew is almost a recluse. He does not hobnob with these members of the ruling class. He does not go to their mansions and social functions. Besides, these big capitalists are very pleased with PNP policies and Peter Philips' management of the economy. Contrary to JLP propaganda, the facts indicate that the PNP has been moving the macroeconomy in the right direction. Holness' ranting against those policies has been hollow and downright disingenuous. The JLP storyline about "not passing the people's test" does not pass the muster of sense in the private sector, for these business people know that if we don't have macroeconomic positives, social welfare cannot be funded because it takes cash to care.
Peter Phillips announced an important thing last Monday after the Cabinet retreat: The Government had established a poverty-reduction committee and said it would be focusing more sharply on social protection and poverty alleviation. So before the next election, the PNP will ensure people start to feel the effects of its macroeconomic achievements. (And public servants will get their salary increases!) Plus, the International Monetary Fund will be making every effort to ensure that Peter Phillips succeeds. Audley Shaw's criticisms of them might be patriotic and sensible, but it doesn't play well among the international investor class and Washington. Jamaica has been a poster child for neo-liberal reforms, and some very powerful people abroad are going to do their best to see that Holness' JLP does not return to crash the party.
Lower oil prices; strong local private-sector support for the PNP Government's policy direction (have you been listening to the top private-sector representatives?); JLP internal divisions and sniping; and the loss of people like Chris Bovell's daughter, Paula Kerr-Jarrett, and other long-time JLP families and loyalists will pose continued problems for Andrew Holness. But I think those who underestimate and write him off are making a grave mistake.