Why did Alexander Bustamante break with the Norman Manley led People’s National Party in 1942 and form the Jamaica Labour Party? Some say Manley and Bustamante were ‘two bulls in a pen where only one could rule’. There is probably something to this. Politicians are by definition egotists. A man must think well of himself to ask others to vote for him. All election campaigns boil down to ‘I am the best man for the job.’


Others maintain that PNP’s affirmation of socialism in 1940 alienated Bustamante. Then too the PNP was formed with the primary objective of achieving immediate self-government, while Bustamante felt Jamaica was not ready for independence. The people agreed, and the JLP decisively won the 1944 campaign with the slogan “self-government equals slavery”.


Whatever the causes, many still feel this split was a tragedy for Jamaica. If the country had sought independence under one united banner, they argue, much subsequent acrimony and bloodshed would have been averted. Yet a party rupture was probably inevitable in time no matter what leaders or ideologies were involved. Overwhelmingly dominant parties are exceptions in democracies.


In general one party rule can only be maintained indefinitely by force or fraud, usually with disastrous results. Whenever people are free to set up, join and vote for organizations of their choice, the eventual result is nearly always true multi-party democracy. The Congress Party, in many ways a model for PNP founders, won every Indian election between 1947 and 1977, but has not held power since 1989.


Because the same two parties have formed the government and opposition since the nation first voted in 1944, Jamaicans tend to think of political parties as permanent entities. But elsewhere changing circumstances and clashing egos regularly cause parties to be born, die and mutate.


The British Liberal Party is the world’s second oldest political organization. But since being rejected in 1918 by the electorate in favour of the newly formed Labour Party, it has played only a minor role in British politics.


The current American Democratic Party was formed by Thomas Jefferson to resist the policies of George Washington’s administration (so much for founding father unity!). It was originally called the Republican Party, became the Democratic-Republican Party, and then split into two factions, one of which became the Democratic Party. The current Republican Party was formed in 1854 as an anti-slavery party, yet today most American blacks support the Democratic Party.


Party shifts still take place in mature democracies today. The Reform Party, the current opposition in Canada, is less than 10 years old.


Parties everywhere espouse admirable slogans, but they are all in essence groupings of men seeking political power. A few are ideologically committed, but the most champion whatever policies they think will get them elected. The first political parties were certainly not inspired by noble ideals. They descended rather from 17th century British parliamentary factions called Whigs and Tories, nick names for Scottish horse thieves and Irish cattle rustlers. (Even then politicians apparently smacked of dishonesty.) Party discipline and ideology were then novelties, but clearly recognizable political parties had emerged by 1700. By 1830 all members of Parliament belonged to parties, by then dignified as Liberals and Conservatives.


Ultimately all political checks and balances rest on the electorate’s willingness and ability to vote out the government. Constitutions are crucial frameworks for national decisions, but they are only pieces of paper unless backed by the people’s will. Britain has no written constitution. Yet a (sometimes scurrilously) free press and the constant vigilance (as it grasps for power) of her majesty’s loyal opposition have produced the longest lived democracy in history.


In a healthy democracy the media impartially informs the public, while the opposition tries to embarrass the government whenever it can. The Montego Bay street people incident is a case in point. It was given ample publicity by the media, but for two months nothing was done to bring those responsible to justice. The JLP then filed a lawsuit on behalf of one of the persons forcibly removed, and days later the Director of Public Prosecutions charged three people in connection with the incident. Was this mere coincidence? (Hopefully this will not be another case of small fry taking the rap for big fish. But that is surely up to the public. A nation gets as much justice as it demands.)


But such coherent and decisive actions by the official opposition have been very rare in recent times. Over the past few years JLP members have spent more time criticizing each other than the government, and its leader increasingly comes across as a once great but now aging man no longer fit for the toils of office. Indeed few really view the JLP today as a potential government in waiting, which is what an opposition really should be.


This cannot be healthy for the nation. What usually makes elected politicians put the people’s interests before personal aggrandizement is the realization that if they don’t, someone else will promise to, and people will vote for that opposition. A government which has no fear of losing power will, more often than not, do as it pleases and not as the people wish.


Political vacuums must be filled for democracy to function properly. This is why many welcomed the formation of the National Democratic Movement. The JLP was not providing a credible alternative to the government, so it was up to another party to try and do the job. The NDM may not have garnered massive electoral support, but it has managed to stay alive and in effect make itself an opposition to the opposition. In the context of Jamaican history, this is an accomplishment. 


Where the process will end, no one can say. Perhaps the JLP will continue to disintegrate and the NDM will displace it as Labour displaced the Liberals in Britain. Or perhaps the JLP will unify itself behind a new leader, regain its credibility, and once again pose a real electoral threat to the PNP. From a national viewpoint it does not matter which of these happens, as long as one of them does. Unchallenged governments, like business monopolies, are nearly always inefficient and exploitative. Lord Acton’s warning has become a cliché because it is true - “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”

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