Can the JLP Learn from History?
Published: Sunday | October 10, 2010


Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

In september 2007, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) triumphed in a contested general-election victory for the first time since 1980, and tasted real political power for the first time since 1989. You would think that droughts of such durations would make Labourites wary of falling into the same traps that kept them so long in the wilderness. But recent events make you wonder.

First, Karl Samuda said he would not run again for party general secretary, and then announced he was having second thoughts. Then we heard that Horace Chang would likely replace retiring party chairman, Ken Baugh, only for Dr Baugh to say he was staying on. Suddenly, a relatively smooth generational shift - Mr Vaz is 22 years younger than Mr Samuda and Dr Chang is 12 years younger than Dr Baugh - seemed to be possibly degenerating into an old-guard last stand.

Like all entities, political parties must periodically regenerate or die. Not only do changing circumstances require new ideas, but politics demands a lot of energy. Successful governance means implementing sound plans effectively, and even the most brilliant ideas mean nothing if not carried out well.

Getting things done

Which reminds me of something a friend once said about Mr Vaz: "Yes, it's true that lots of people don't like Daryl. But the man gets things done, and that is a rare trait in this country, and especially in politics, where we have plenty of talkers but very few doers."

Since we decide who will run the country by counting ballots, it would be strange if our parties did not also choose officials democratically. So, there is nothing wrong with intra-party political challenges. What matters is how these contests are conducted.

The People's National Party (PNP) has, twice in the past four years, held open leadership contests. Both were fiercely contested and, while a few over-the-top comments were heard, there were no accusations of intimidation or skulduggery, and the final results were gracefully accepted by all.

The JLP has not been able to settle its internal disagreements in so clean-cut a manner, at least not since 1967, when, after Donald Sangster's death, Hugh Shearer was elected prime minister by 16 votes to 15 among members of Parliament. In fact, during the 1990s, leadership disputes fractured the party into political irrelevance.

Now, Edward Seaga has probably contributed to the building of this country in more ways than any other Jamaican and, in the dark days of the late 1970s and 1980, was a truly heroic figure who, arguably, saved Jamaican democracy. But in most other English speaking democracies, he would likely have resigned after his 1989 defeat and, certainly, after another crushing loss in 1993, it was obvious the public no longer considered him a potential prime minister. But by dividing and conquering, he stayed on to be beaten again in 1997, and in a move that was probably unprecedented in the Westminster tradition, lost a fourth straight election in 2002.

The 'Golding' effect

These were the days of the 'gang of seven' and the 'gang of five' - the days of Pearnel Charles' supporters being manhandled at the 1993 Labour conference, of Karl Samuda leaving to win his seat for the PNP in 1993 and returning to win it back for the JLP in 1997. It was also the time of Bruce Golding leaving the JLP to form the National Democratic Movement (NDM) in 1995, resigning as NDM leader after its 2000 by-election defeat, and then returning to the JLP in 2002.

Now, Mr Golding only came back to the JLP in 2002 because he was begged to do so by a party trailing by over 10 points in the polls and on the verge of another wipeout. While the prodigal son's return was not really well handled - Mr Golding wasn't even given an official post - his presence dramatically turned around the JLP's fortunes. At one stage on election night, it almost looked like winning. As it was, the four per cent defeat and 26 seats was the best Labour showing since 1980. And, of course, it was with Mr Golding at the helm that the JLP won in 2007. The JLP seat count from 1989 to 2007 speaks volumes.

Now, Bruce Golding has his detractors both in and out of his party. Some accuse him of having a limited emotional quotient, of being a policy wonk, of being too sensitive to criticism, of not backing those who back him, of being a born number-two man, of being too indecisive to be a true leader ... And, who is to say, they may be right. I have never had close enough contact with the man to make any informed judgements about his personal strengths or weaknesses. But you would have to be blind to look at that seat count chart and not see the obvious difference he has made to the JLP since returning.

Though many find his 'to be or not to be' decision-making style convoluted and tortuous, the facts show that, on the big events, Bruce Golding somehow manages to land on the right side of history. As late as August 2002, his 1995 decision to leave the JLP to form the NDM was a proven case of political suicide. A month later, he had stumbled into the greatest political comeback in Jamaican history and, in five years, was prime minister.

Similarly, at the beginning of 2010 he looked overwhelmed by events, unable to clinch an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or deal with the Christopher 'Dudus' Coke extradition matter. A few months later, his administration successfully executed the internationally-acclaimed Jamaica Debt Exchange swap that cut the country's debt servicing by 40 per cent. Then, after the Manatt affair pushed him almost into resignation, he signed the order to extradite Coke, authorised the full-force Tivoli incursion and a state of emergency, and then saw crime fall almost miraculously by 40 per cent over the next four months. The record says that on the truly big issues, Bruce Golding is either very smart, very lucky, or both.

The Golding-Brady case

Whether Bruce Golding is the best man to lead the JLP, only that party can decide. The Manatt affair has weakened him, but perhaps more among the chattering classes than the man on the street. The media may be inexplicably ignoring the crime issue. But to anyone in touch with the ground, there's no doubt that to the average Jamaican, the biggest development over the past four months is that they are feeling safer now than they have in over a decade. As Mr Gayle, the corn and soup man, told me a few weeks back, "It's not about Manatt; it's all about the crime. And you can quote me on that."

By suing Mr Golding, Harold Brady has done Jamaica a big favour. If Mr Golding loses the suit, he will have to resign as a proven liar. If he wins, all Manatt doubts will have been resolved. Either way, the country can finally move forward.

My advice to the JLP is to wait for the courts to decide the Brady case. If Mr Golding loses, let him resign forthwith, and hold a clean Peter-versus-Portia style contest between the two most publicly popular contenders, Audley Shaw and Andrew Holness. If the courts vindicate Mr Golding, rally around the man who has transformed the party from a withering branch into a flourishing tree. To descend prematurely into 1990s-style backstabbing chaos would be suicidal folly. But hey, what do armchair scribes know about the reality of politics?

George Santayana said that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But long before this, Friedrich Hegel cynically commented, "The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history."

Will the JLP prove both right, or wrong?

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