Ian Boyne, Contributor
Andrew Holness delivered what the base wanted last Sunday at his annual party conference: toughness, testosterone and tendentiousness. He was resolute, resounding and resilient in the face of fears that the perennial factiousness of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was to make its abode in the party yet again.
But this head of household made it clear at the Jamaica Conference Centre that no such guest would be welcome at his home. If people did not like how he was running things a yard, they should "leave!" he thundered. One stunned delegate in the audience was caught on television delivering a double-barrel Jamaican curse-word, as though to say, "Yes, he has it in him!" The audience erupted in frenzied delight.
Another salvo from the former Mr Cool which elicited a similarly rapturous outburst was when he said he was "sick and tired" of certain people not of his generation; shouting that they should "go!". For Labourites, that could apply equally to the present People's National Party (PNP) leadership and aged internal combatants like Mike Henry. Who the cap fits, let them wear it.
The weekend was tense for Labourites, as that irritant and nuisance Everald Warmington had again catapulted himself in the news with his court action to protest the unconstitutionality of the election of three deputy leaders in the party. Thankfully for the party, by Saturday, Warmington, having sufficiently jolted and embarrassed the party hierarchy, had called off his court action. But not before tarnishing his party's image and resurrecting fears of the JLP's reflexive disunity - at a time when unity is needed to oppose the PNP, coming under increasing pressure for its handling of the economy.
WARMINGTON WRONG THEN, RIGHT NOW
But the efforts this past week to resolve Warmington's issue, the manoeuvrings to ensure that there is no internal bloodletting and to present the party as unified under a strong, decisive leader evidence some political management. Gleaner Opinion Editor André Wright wrote an unassailable piece last Wednesday, showing that Warmington himself has a nerve to talk about taking a principled approach to constitutional breaches in his party when he so flagrantly breached this country's Constitution for years by his dual-citizenship status.
But as I said on 'Nationwide at Five' last Monday, Warmington's selective morality aside, the country has to be concerned about a party which shows so little regard for its own constitution. How can we trust that party to respect the nation's constitution? Indeed, statements from leaders like Audley Shaw have only compounded concerns about the irregularities and breaches highlighted by Warmington.
In pointing out Warmington's inconsistency and lack of a principled stand, Shaw inadvertently further damaged the party by admitting that "there are breaches in virtually every post". No, that kind of chaka-chaka operation is not what we expect of a party that has declared the start of its campaign to form the next Government. No, you have to put your internal house in order and show respect for your own constitution.
But theatrics and tactics aside, party leader Andrew last Sunday signalled a significant shift in the party's focus and political strategy. Perhaps that's what forced the PNP, unusually, to call a press conference last Tuesday to answer him. PNP Chairman Robert Pickersgill admitted: "... We believe that the unpatriotic and dangerous comments made by the opposition leader as he addressed delegates on Sunday could not go without comment."
I saw nothing dangerous and unpatriotic in what Holness said. The only thing that was potentially dangerous, if Holness were to pursue it, was the platform of pro-poor, progressive advocacy which he sought to wrest from the PNP in that conference speech. While it is true that even Right-wing parties on political platforms have to adjust their message to appeal to the masses; and while it is true that populism is seductive to even some Right-wingers on the campaign trail, the tone and tenor of Holness' presentation on Sunday was out of the norm for a party seen as backers of the business class.
Now I don't know when Andrew became a convert to progressive thought, and if he has, how long that conversion will last, but he declared emphatically on Sunday that the JLP is "a progressive party".
"The foundation of the Jamaica Labour Party is the working class of this country. Bustamante is the original defender of the poor and underclasses of this country. Now, more than ever, Jamaica needs a champion for the poor and working class ... ." Andrew is taking the Labour Party back to its roots so that it can no longer be deemed a 'brown man's party' (as was the accusation under Bruce), or a party of the big man (as was the accusation under Eddie).
It is no secret that Andrew was not the first choice of the moneyed classes after they had decided to dump Bruce. They had cast their lot with Audley, with a few supporting Tufton. That is why they tried to get Andrew to back away. They thought he would, and were surprised that he refused to cooperate. Remember he was called to a meeting at Harold Brady's house where Audley's anointing was announced. Andrew was simply to fall in line and rein in his youthful ambition. Andrew instead decided to play the youth card, and for a while it seemed that was the Magic Elixir that could return the Dudus-tarnished JLP to power.
Andrew is a loner, a virtual social recluse. He does not hobnob with the business and ruling classes like Audley. They don't really know him. Is Andrew gambling that taking a more populist route is a way to stake out his own path to JLP leadership? Does he feel that making the JLP a more inclusive, grass-roots party, a "party of the people", he can, Obama-style, get that mass support and not have to be too dependent on the moneyed classes?
JAB AT NEO-LIBERALS
There were several things I liked about Andrew's presentation on Sunday. First, he made the elimination of abject poverty a central goal. Significantly, he said clearly, "I don't believe in trickle-down." I could not believe my ears. This is the first time that Andrew Holness has so clearly rejected neoliberalism. But it was not just that statement. His entire presentation was cast in a non-neoliberal mode.
His focus was on poverty, unemployment, education, health care, social development. What's new? you ask. All politicians talk those issues on the political platform, for that is what appeals to the masses. They are just cynically exploiting those issues to curry-favour with the poor, the numerical majority. I understand that sentiment.
But usually these politicians will talk about growth, foreign investment, controlling interest rates, keeping the dollar stable, etc. They usually talk macroeconomic issues - especially the JLP - saying that the way to tackle poverty is simply to have a growing, investment-friendly economy. That's how the JLP has traditionally distinguished itself from the PNP.
Andrew's message was different this time. He said if he were re-elected last year, he would have focused on social protection. He would expand PATH to half a million beneficiaries, taking it from 350,000. He talked about the JLP's record social-protection spending. He delivered a strong defence of the free tuition and health-care policies bequeathed to this government, warning that they could review as much as they wanted to, but they would have to be prepared to do battle with him if they dared to eliminate them.
He also strongly defended the Career Advancement Programme, which keeps young people in school, saying, tellingly, "If we don't support them staying in school longer, they are the ones who become the babymothers and fathers, or worse yet, become involved in gang." Excellent point.
Now Andrew was not being reckless in his comments. He was clear: "A social protection strategy, by itself, can only ease some of the pressures on the poor. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to end poverty. To truly tackle poverty, we must fix the economy." So he believes in the market. But he does not believe in a market devoid of intervention. Traditional JLP polemics is grow the economy first - seek ye first the economic kingdom and all these things will be added! Standard neoliberalism.
Andrew is now saying you have to deliberately target social protection, unemployment-busting (not just inflation control) and investments in education and health while you grow the economy. No trickle-down. It's an important ideological shift. Let's see whether it was just a blip or whether it represents heartfelt conviction.
In his view that this government had no political will to take hard decisions, he was less convincing. The PNP press conference was effective in refuting his view that this government lacks political will to take hard decisions. This last Budget was a tough one, as Phillips keeps reminding people. The primary surplus was raised from three per cent to six per cent in one single year. Taxes were placed on the backs of the poor, the workers have given up a lot, and the Government is asking for even more sacrifices.
And the JLP is disingenuous in its criticisms of the PNP's handling of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) negotiations, when that is partly because of its own action in taking IMF money and not implementing reforms their government signed to, which has led to IMF's being super-cautious with us. They took the Fund's money and did not do what they pledged. And when the once-bitten, twice-shy IMF waits to be convinced we are serious, then the JLP cusses the government for taking too long to negotiate an IMF agreement!
But even if its just rhetoric, Andrew's positioning of the JLP as a progressive party has altered the balance of forces in the country.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.