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Edward Seaga and West Kingston, a 40-year love affair


File photo
Edward Seaga, left, holds aloft "The Flag of Jamaica's Independence", designed as part of the then campaign for "Jamaica Yes; Federation No", in 1961. Sir Alexander Bustamante looks on.

Troy Caine, Contributor

"Closer than a brother,
Seaga is to me
He's my dearest friend
in my every need..."
(West Kingston party song)

Outside of the geographical proximity of the West Kingston constituency, it is very difficult for anyone to fathom or truly appreciate the significance and sincerity of this song.

But to the people of the area, its resonance is more than a song and more like an anthem that has become as meaningful to them as Eddie Seaga has been over the last four decades as their political representative.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002 marked the momentous occasion when Edward Phillip George Seaga celebrated his unprecedented 40 years as an elected Member of Parliament (MP), not just for West Kingston, but also a magnificent tenure of unbroken service to Jamaica and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

Back in 1994, he had already moved to the top of the chart (consisting now of some 306 individuals) as the longest-serving Member elected since 1944 when he eclipsed another JLP stalwart, the late Leopold Augustus Lynch, whose record of 32 years as the unbeaten warrior of West Portland (1944-76) stood for a very long time.

Now, after nine consecutive victories (including one unopposed) against a total of seven different opponents, Eddie Seaga's record will hardly ever be surpassed in our lifetime.

ONLY SURVIVOR

Indeed, not only is he the only surviving member of that auspicious group of 45 that was elected on April 10, 1962 to serve in Independent Jamaica's first Parliament and is still serving in the House of Representatives, but of that batch, only Mr. Seaga and three others (Dr. Herbert Eldemire, Roy McNeill and Keble Munn) are still around with us.

Unlike most of the other long-servers, Seaga's 40 years of stewardship as the Member of Parliament for West Kingston has led to service in almost every facet of political life in Jamaica.

He has been a Government Minister responsible for Development & Welfare, Finance & Planning (twice - and accumulatedly, the longest serving), Information & Culture, Leader of the Opposition (twice) and Prime Minister.

He has been the leader of the JLP since 1974, a key party organiser in the referendum campaign in 1961 as well as a junior officer in the party around that period, and was a member of the committee for the drafting of the Jamaican Constitution in 1962.

Before that, he was the 29-year-old youngster who created that other history back in 1959 as the youngest member to be appointed to the Legislative Council (now the Senate) - a record which lasted until 1977.

But the sting and substance of his famous "haves-and-have-nots" speech delivered in the Upper House on April 6, 1961 has endured for 41 years, still brings a chill to political opponents and is still lingering on the conscience of a nation.

Eddie Seaga learnt very early that the road to a successful and sustainable political career led to the cementing of a serious relationship at the grassroots level and building a strong home base.

His destiny in becoming a distinguished national leader, an acclaimed international statesman and one accorded with all sorts of grandiose titles, actually started with a socio-political obsession with West Kingston.

'CLOSER THAN A BROTHER'

And, over the years, he has indeed become "closer than a brother" to the people in his constituency - in fact, closer than a father and a mother too, in most instances.

They look to him not just for material benefits, but also for guidance, inspiration, security and a better quality of life. This is the kind of political representation that young, aspiring politicians usually dream about, not daring it to be real.

But to Edward Seaga, the reality of his success is a simple formula: "Treat people with respect and dignity and they will treat you likewise".

That formula has paid more handsome dividends than most political pundits might have envisaged in 1962 when Seaga officially entered the political arena.

In a constituency where no one was allowed more than one term prior to 1962, Eddie Seaga has not only won repeatedly, but has substantially increased his majority with every election, making West Kingston the safest seat the JLP has ever held.

The unwavering love, loyalty and trust that have been heaped on him - usually in a display of excessive exuberance - by his grateful constituents are virtually unparalleled in Jamaica's modern political history.

Only a few mild exceptions come to mind - such as Lynch's popularity in West Portland, Glasspole's in East Kingston, Barrant's in East St. Thomas, Dr. Lloyd's in South East St. Ann, the Gallimores in South West St. Ann, Bustamante's hold on South Clarendon and even Norman Manley's influence in areas of East St. Andrew.

But no political representative in Jamaica has ever had a firmer grasp on a constituency through sheer dedication and love of the people than Seaga has had over West Kingston.

And no one, perhaps since Bustamante, has become such an awesome political force - worshipped by supporters, flayed by detractors as too confrontational and largely misunderstood and misjudged by others.

For a man whose original thoughts were the farthest from politics, this kind of political dynamism with the representation of the same seat for 70 per cent of our electoral period under adult suffrage, is an incredible achievement.

When Alexander Bustamante became the first winner of the West Kingston seat in December 1944, Eddie Seaga was a mere 14-year-old schoolboy at Wolmer's High School with perhaps hardly a thought on politics as something in his future.

In that first watershed election, Bustamante not only destroyed the PNP's Ken Hill by over 6,000 votes, but his fledgling Jamaica Labour Party, barely a year old, almost totally destroyed the People's National Party, its president, and all of the other political wannabes by grabbing 23 of the 32 seats first contested under universal adult suffrage.

By 1949, when Eddie Seaga was on his way from Wolmer's to Harvard University, Bustamante too found it expedient to move and was on his way from West Kingston to the more sheltered sanctuary of South Clarendon.

HIGH POLITICAL ACTIVITY

In those days (like today), West Kingston was a hub of commercial activity, and in spite of being the major area of ghetto life in the city, it has always been a focus of attention for its trading, its markets, its music, its port activity and the principal meeting place for rural and city folk.

Indeed, West Kingston has always attracted a high level of political activity which has only intensified with the passing years. However, despite the PNP's defeat in 1944, it was the PNP which really took off in the late '40s as an organised, revitalised political entity and especially in the Corporate Area of Kingston and St. Andrew.

This was clearly demonstrated in the 1947 municipal elections when the PNP secured seven seats to the JLP's six, but that score was instantly transformed to a JLP-controlled KSAC when their four (of the six) MHRs were added as ex-officio members, with Bustamante becoming the Mayor.

Among the PNP winners was none other than Ken Hill who trounced Rose Leon in a Central St. Andrew division and who, by 1949, was perhaps the most popular and influential politician in the Corporate Area.

With Busta's departure to the safer pastures of Clarendon, the job to defend the JLP's incumbency in West Kingston was left to his young protege, 26-year-old Hugh Lawson Shearer, who had also won a KSAC division in 1947. But in December 1949, Councillor Hugh Shearer was no match for the more powerful Councillor Ken Hill who took the seat for the PNP by over 1,600 votes.

However, Ken Hill's popularity would cost him dearly. The head of the left-leaning PNP affiliated Trades Union Congress (TUC), Hill's slightly unsuccessful challenge to Norman Manley's presidency of the PNP at the 1951 party conference was neither forgotten nor forgiven by the more influential and conservative elements within the party.

By April 1952, charges were laid against him, his brother Frank, and two others - Richard Hart and Arthur Henry - for their communist infiltration of the party and with much fanfare, the "Four Hs" were expelled from the PNP.

This purge of the left probably seemed justified on the ground that exactly two years earlier on April 22, 1950, Frank Hill's house in Kingston and his office in Montego Bay were both raided by the police and communist literature were found and seized.

But, for a party that had declared itself socialist way back in 1940 (just two years after its formation), the charges were hardly anything but a political smoke-screen to get rid of Ken Hill as a potential threat to both Manley's presidency and the PNP's chances in the upcoming general election.

COST THEM A SEAT

For the most part, the ploy worked, since the PNP won the election, but in the end, it cost them the West Kingston seat.

Not one to be caught politically inactive, within a few months of his expulsion, Ken Hill had already formed his own party, the National Labour Party (NLP) and was on the campaign trail to defend his West Kingston seat.

Just around that same time, young Eddie Seaga, now 22, had returned from Harvard and he, too, was on a trail - except his was leading to a place called Buxton Town in West Central St. Catherine, a remote village where for the next three years, he would live, endear himself to the people and engross himself in extensive sociological research which would culminate in the authorship of several publications, as well as the production of various folk music albums.

The general election which came on January 12, 1955, although victorious for the PNP, demonstrated the extent to which Hill's influence was underrated by the party when they sent in debutante Iris King to be their official torch-bearer in the contest.

As a result, Hill split the PNP vote with a poll of some 3,262 votes or 22 per cent and allowed Hugh Shearer to romp home with only 42.6 per cent of the ballots and a margin of over 1,100 votes against Iris King.

Interestingly, the PNP's overall success in the elections with only 18 seats to the JLP's 14 was not so much because of their "purge of the left", as it was perhaps due to a little help from the Farmers' Party which clearly played the spoiler in at least three constituencies, foiling the JLP's chances in those seats and the likelihood of what could easily have been a 17-15 scoreline for Labour and a third term in office.

Troy Caine is a political historian, researcher, and analyst.

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