On October 30, 2017 the Jamaica Labour Party won what Cliff Hughes, one of Jamaica’s leading journalists, called the most “consequential by-election in Jamaica’s history.” The by-election was a critical one, the PNP’s President and Leader of the Opposition Dr. Peter Phillips described it as a referendum on the performance of the JLP government. For the JLP Leader and Prime Minister Andrew Holness, this was an opportunity to increase a razor-thin majority and put the government in a more comfortable position. For political pundits, it was the first electoral outing for Dr. Peter Phillips in his new role as Leader of the Opposition and President of the PNP. For those who believe Dr. Phillips’ moment in politics has passed it would certainly indicate whether comrades saw his leadership as viable. For these reasons and perhaps more, the by-election in St. Mary South Eastern was a litmus test for the current state of party politics in Jamaica. It was an assessment of the leadership of both parties and a potential assessment of the work of the JLP as government.
Jamaica is blessed with academics, opinion makers, and experienced commentators (on all things politics) who share their opinions on a regular basis on all forms of media platforms – new and traditional media. Much of the conversation since the publication of the preliminary results of the by-election have centred on what the PNP has done wrong, why the PNP lost and will continue to lose and what is wrong with the PNP’s machinery and leadership. There has been very little assessment of why the JLP won, what the JLP got right, the JLP’s particular brand of electioneering and their strategy in St. Mary South Eastern.
It would seem that many are smoking the “Jamaica a PNP Country” weed. There is generally an unspoken agreement among so many in traditional and social media that the PNP is the legitimate ideological leadership force; when they have won they have done so through the classical ‘beauty of politics’, good organization, skillful communication, graceful charisma, and of course located in the ideological wisdom of the 4Hs. It would also seem that the JLP, on the other hand, has won through brute force, bully politics, unsophisticated ideas and a power hungry focus that is almost uncivilized. This is the narrative that permeates the Jamaican political landscape. To say both parties are the same then is to imply that in some way the PNP has descended into ‘gutter politics’. Generally, the PNP’s complaint after an election loss points to theft, thuggery, intimidation, violence and vote buying.
It is the same cynicism that meets an assessment of the leadership of Andrew Holness; there is a hesitance to engage him as a complex leader, who has evolved and grown through time and who demonstrates a keen understanding of the political moment and the current political culture. To many, he is baby Seaga and at any minute the rank and file of the JLP will challenge his leadership and be once again caught up in political battles and uncertainty. The argument goes further to suggest that Andrew should not be trusted as he leads people of questionable character, the PNP on the other hand has within its ranks some of the finest politicians in the country, all believable, bright and trustworthy.
There are two narratives emerging then out of this election, the first explains that the PNP is no longer listening to the people and as a result are losing their ability to connect and influence, they are out of touch and are only listening to each other. The second is that the JLP spent ‘a bag a money’ in St. Mary South Eastern and that they imported thugs and bad men to intimidate the people of the constituency. In any case what it adds up to is that Jamaicans either have to be intimidated into voting for the JLP or they are ‘vexed’ with or have ‘fallen out of love’ with the PNP, hence the PNP loss.
I believe that by leaving this false, uncritical narrative unchallenged we are missing a grand opportunity to really speak to the truth of our politics. If we continue to represent the Jamaican state as possessing just one legitimate political party, then we miss the mechanics of the JLP, we miss the intricacies and specifics of political change and the maturing of our political leadership and culture.