Ian Boyne: Will JLP ever settle down?
The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) seems to be fated with what Christians call 'generational curse'. Divisiveness, infighting, internal bickering and disunity are apparently encoded in its DNA. Can the JLP ever be delivered from this curse?
Just when many thought that the party was settling down under party leader Andrew Holness, we were hit with the unexpected news that once again his leadership was hanging in the balance, and that some of his parliamentary colleagues were seeking to dump him. There was a seven-hour meeting two Fridays ago from which the leader managed to emerge with his political life intact, his judgement suspended until last Tuesday. What a life in the kingdom for poor Prince Andrew!
Reports are that he had to plead for his political life last Tuesday, but he gave a good and salvageable account of himself on the witness stand, as the jury of fellow parliamentarians decided on a stay of execution. He is on probation until September 30, when the jury will decide whether it's Project Victory for him.
OFFENSIVE FACEBOOK POSTING
Things got nasty again last Thursday morning when a highly offensive Facebook posting was done smearing Holness' parliamentary detractors - whose numbers have grown since the last insurrection - casting them as bad-minded, devilish and corrupt. Holness' opponents have charged that the person who did the posting was associated with someone from his office, and some highly placed insiders have made it clear that unless persons like those were reined in, any talk of reconciliation and healing would remain just that - talk.
It seems everywhere Holness turns, macka juk him. After his bruising set of party meetings where he had to face his accusers, Holness issued an upbeat, strife-distracting statement, saying he was going to stomp into every nook and cranny, announcing a Clarendon tour. But that itself caused some internal fuss as some persons charged that Holness had not consulted with, and received support from, two of his strong parliamentary opponents, Clarendon members of Parliament Mike Henry and Rudyard Spencer.
But while Holness has been getting increasing heat from parliamentary colleagues, ordinary Labourites seem to be increasingly fed up with those who are giving him hell, deepening the public-relations problem for the JLP. The Labourites desperately want to get back into power and they know the image of a strife-torn JLP is not one to endear voters to their party.
Those MPs who are being identified as giving Andrew a hard time will, increasingly, be resented and cursed by Labourites. Some of Andrew's parliamentary colleagues might not be fond of him, but he is loved by rank-and-file Labourites. Also, the polls show that he is admired by many Jamaicans whose opinion of his leadership skills diverges radically from his parliamentary colleagues'. The majority of delegates support him. Even with the charge by detractors that General Secretary Horace Chang rigged the last delegates' list in favour of Holness, they dare not face him on the floor of conference anytime soon. They know they would be thrashed again. So if the majority of Labourites and delegates want Andrew Holness and the polls show him as the most popular political leader in the country, what is all this opposition by a vocal few about?
As one seasoned party insider said to me last week, "Look, I know what it looks like when we are winning and when we are losing. I remember what it looked like in 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2011. And right now, I know we are not looking good. We are not seeing the signs of victory. We are just not ready." Ordinary Labourites and delegates might love Holness and many Jamaicans might admire his leadership and be taken by his congeniality and affability, but some of the key political trench men say the party machinery under Holness is not ready.
Karl Samuda, who was backing Holness during the last uprising, is now with the dissidents, convinced Holness is not leading the party effectively. With some of Andrew's opponents, it's not just personal animus. It is that they are pragmatic, largely old men, who can't afford for their last strike at power to slip from their hands. It's as simple as that. Holness can play around for he is young, but they have a sense of urgency he does not share.
And they feel he is not the kind of team player and manager who can get the best results. His critics point to party disorganisation and the lack of support to constituencies from party central. Councillors, caretakers and weak MPs are left on their own and feel neglected. They say Andrew needs to be giving greater support on the ground. One of the reasons they decided to give him a reprieve on Tuesday was that he presented a plan to deal with their menu of concerns.
REALITY IS REALITY
It's not just a matter that these detractors are consumed by special interests and selfishness. Some have some genuine, legitimate concerns. One of their biggest concerns is that Andrew has not been able to win the confidence of the moneyed classes. Ordinary Labourites and others can always rail up and talk about 'big man' wanting to control the Labour Party and dictating to poor people. Legitimate argument. But reality is reality.
The big people who fund elections don't feel Andrew is winnable. I have talked to several of Jamaica's biggest capitalists.They have no regard for Andrew. You can always deplore the power of the elite, but you can't ignore them in a system that has no public financing of elections. And if you think that St Aubyn Bartlett's Obama-type suggestion for ordinary Labourites to give $2,000 a month to finance the party's coming back to power is on, you can stay there. That's dead in the water. Labourites and ordinary Jamaicans themselves want $2,000, much less! Public servants certainly can't afford that.
If the JLP is to win the next election, it must have a leader who can command the confidence of the ruling class. Simple. Andrew's detractors know that Audley Shaw (or Chris Tufton) could command that confidence of winnability from the business elite. You see, Andrew is really an outsider. He is a poor boy from St Catherine. Portia is a poor girl from St Catherine, too, but she is part of a group that has strong connections to the moneyed classes. The moneyed classes have a strong affinity to Peter Phillips and his economic policies.
The moneyed classes are wary about Portia's pro-poor orientation but they feel Peter is strong enough and the International Monetary Fund stern enough to persuade her to resist the populism.
This is not the 1970s. The People's National Party (PNP) is today the darling of the private sector. The PNP has both strong mass support and strong elite support, including strong backing from The Gleaner. (Remember, too, that Daryl Vaz and Karl Samuda are close to Butch Stewart, so no support from the Observer). The Gleaner is unabashedly, though not viscerally, supportive of the Government's economic reform programme and has frequently - and with justification - lashed the JLP for its simplistic responses to that programme.
The Gleaner has taken a reasoned, measured and respectable position on the Government's economic reform programme and has called out the JLP for its propagandistic and opportunistic opposition to that programme. (Though Holness has recently sought to nuance his responses.) Sure, I have critiqued The Gleaner's neo-liberalism, but I have to concede that it has taken a principled and reasoned approach to its defence of Peter Phillips' programme.
The Gleaner's clear support for Peter Phillips' management of the economy and its regular critique of Holness' opposition to it is a significant blow to him. Don't watch the decline in newspaper readership: There has been no concomitant decline in the influence of The Gleaner. As a politician, you ignore The Gleaner at your own peril. In its latest critique of Holness and his Labour party, The Gleaner says in its editorial last Thursday ('The JLP in baggy trousers and lipstick') : "He (Holness) possesses neither Mr Shaw's natural charisma nor his loud, rousing and entertaining platform evangelism that does well with the political base. But neither has Mr Holness positioned himself in the vanguard of robust policy development and articulation."
The Gleaner says, "Indeed, it is on economic policy articulation that the JLP is at its weakest. He (Holness) has to quickly shift the JLP into a machine that can fashion economic and social policies."
Holness has to find a way to win back his detractors and, like Abraham Lincoln, create a team of rivals. He must convert enemies into friends. People like James Robertson and Daryl Vaz can be immensely useful to him in the trenches and as realpolitik advisers. He must win back Samuda, Chuck, Henry and others. I believe he has it in him to do it. Don't write off Andrew. He proved on Tuesday he could appease and conciliate. He must sharpen those skills as well as his general people skills. (Though I personally find him likeable, pleasant, and very civil and dignified.) He must find his way into the circles of the power elite in Jamaica.
He doesn't have much time, as the general election might be around the corner.
- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.