Ian Boyne: Roll call for the uncommitted
There is one unmistakably positive thing about Jamaica's high rate of the uncommitted/politically alienated voting bloc: It signals that Jamaican politics has, happily, become less intrusive, less suffocating, less threatening. For more than half of the electorate, it doesn't really matter who wins. Nothing dramatic turns on it.
This is in stark contrast to the 1980 election when a large percentage of Jamaicans felt they had to vote that their freedoms and democratic rights depended on it. Even people who didn't like the sound of the word 'politics' came out early to vote. Conservative, Pentecostal, Fundamentalist Christians looking to the great bye and bye in the sky especially those Christians - flocked those polling booths, for they wanted to ensure they could still go to church, so they had to boot Michael Manley from power as 'Cuban-style communism' was imminent. It was the Deliverance era.
I heard young Andrew saying at his rally two Sunday nights ago that this was the most crucial election since Independence. He must be too young to remember. Or just wistful. The Jamaica Labour Party would like to cast this election in Manichaean terms, appealing to the uncommitted for a "partnership for prosperity" to save Jamaica from Portia and Peter. But it is not going to be easy to rouse people from their inertia. They just don't get the sense that it makes a difference who is in power. There seems to be no clear and present danger in their view, and try as Audley, Andrew and Daryl might to conjure up apocalyptic images of Portia and Peter's mismanagement of the economy, the panic button is not being struck by the uncommitted/-undecided.
In a front-page story on Thursday headlined 'PNP by default?', The Gleaner reports: "The People's National Party could return to form the Government almost by default ... as a sizable number of the undecided voters do not see the Jamaica Labour Party as a viable alternative." The report quotes anthropologist and researcher Dr Herbert Gayle as saying: "The biggest problem for respondents was that they had become tired of the ruling party, the PNP, but did not see the JLP as a viable option. This group made up almost a third of the undecided."
But I bet you that despite any unattractiveness of the JLP as an alternative, if the people felt threatened by the PNP; if they felt that party would pass a law to allow gay marriage, threaten religious freedom or if they were sufficiently outraged over some revealed scandal or statement, they would vote JLP. People don't vote in parties. They vote out parties. The PNP was wise to put some distance between itself and the dead babies issue, for if they did not, some in the category of undecided would vote with their emotions. As social scientists know, disgust, revulsion and outrage are very powerful emotions in influencing behaviour.
The JLP should wish that the PNP would do or say something to really outrage people, and they would not have to sell any 10-point plan to get the uncommitted to vote against that party in protest. The JLP has come up with a very tempting set of proposals for the uncommitted and undecided. For the many thousands of Jamaicans who are earning $1.5 million or less to hear that they could very shortly be taking home nearly $20,000 more a month is extremely enticing and inviting. You don't have to love Andrew, Audley or Everald Warmington to vote for that! But there is one hurdle for the JLP. People have to believe you.
And the very thing which characterises the uncommitted and undecided is their cynicism and mistrust. They don't believe politicians. They believe this proposal is too good to be true and is a three-card trick. And so they are very susceptible to Peter Phillips, Portia Simpson Miller and Ralston Hyman's telling them it's a con. You only want to read 26-year-old Adiel Thomas' piece in Thursday's Observer to confirm what I am saying. In his article, 'The joke is on us - empty promises and pathetic, outdated antics', which mocks both PNP and JLP, he oozes cynicism:
Speaking of his generation, a significant segment of this population, he says: "Our view of politics, and the political system, is that it is a joke. An absolute joke. No one takes Simpson Miller and her Comrades or Andrew and his Labourites seriously. We believe that they are in it for the money, the free phone calls and the important functions where people treat them like royalty." This kind of crude (and, in my view, senseless) cynicism has traction among the undecided. It's the view on the streets.
The effort to get more than the party base vote in this election seems futile. Something outrageous has to happen on the PNP's side to pull out the uncommitted. Rational argumentation will only influence a minority (Yes, there is that constituency that is looking at arguments and looking forward to the debates, but that is no sizable segment of the voting population. That's "the articulate minority". )
Ariel Thomas continues: "For us, the joke continues as we prepare for another election, filled with empty promises and pathetic, outdated antics to garner votes from those whom I perceive to be either uneducated or reaping some kind of financial benefit from the party they support. Why else would you support the Jamaican Government or any of the political organisations? Surely, you cannot believe they are making progress."
With that kind of cynicism and mistrust, how can the JLP convince that segment of the voting population to take them seriously that they would really honour that huge $1.5-million tax exemption freeing more than 40 per cent of Jamaicans from paying income taxes? The JLP has other alluring proposals, too. They captured them in a series of ads in Thursday's papers: Promising to remove the annoying and vexing mandatory fees at high schools; to free up well-needed and in-high-demand student loans by reducing interest rates, extending repayment periods, increasing funds available, and calculating loans on reducing balance.
These proposals would appeal to a wide group of struggling and aspiring Jamaicans. If they would only believe the JLP. Even without Dr Phillips, Delano Franklyn and Portia Simpson Miller rubbishing those plans, uncommitted/undecided people have their own ingrained cynicism and scepticism. They don't trust politicians. They don't trust their promises. They are more moved to vote against them than for them and their tempting ideas. This is a major hurdle the JLP has.
THE REAL FEAR
And people have a history of broken election promises to bolster their cynicism. Who is to say that Andrew, despite his solemn pledge, will not tell us some weeks after coming to office that he didn't realise in Opposition that Peter Phillips had run the economy to such a wreck that there is no way under heaven that his (Andrew's) well-intentioned proposals could be implemented, for he just did not know how bad things were? Who to say that will not be said? This is the real fear of uncommitted voters. They have no faith in politicians.
What I find interesting as a student of politics is how 'socialist' the JLP is sounding while accusing the PNP of still harbouring socialism! For, make no mistake about it, the JLP's proposals for that $1.5-million tax break and the hit on those earning $5 million is a step in the direction of progressive taxation. Which is where we should go, and where all countries seriously interested in tackling income inequality must go. I just don't think Andrew's proposal goes far enough, and I have serious questions about its feasibility. But philosophically, as a progressive, I agree with progressive taxation.
President Barack Obama has labelled inequality "the defining challenge of our time". Jamaica has one of the highest levels of inequality in the region. There is a very interesting article, 'How to spread the wealth', in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs, which is devoted to the issue of inequality. I suggest that Comrades read that to see what capitalist countries are doing to reduce income inequality and to redistribute wealth.
Says the article, "The first requirement is to make income taxes more progressive." The rich should pay more than those at the bottom. Audley and Andrew have that one right, irrespective of the feasibility of their particular proposal. Free health care, free education and wider access to educational loans are part of a progressive agenda. How have times changed!
Years ago, it would have been the PNP arguing for these things and a reactionary JLP saying this is just populist madness! No wonder the uncommitted remain cynical.