JLP, PNP — same difference?
IN plain Jamaican parlance, "same difference" usually means "no better herring, no better barrel", but hard-core supporters of both parties would be the first to say otherwise with respect to the ruling People's National Party (PNP) and the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
Interestingly, in the beginning there was only the PNP. On September 18, 1938, when the PNP was launched at the Ward Theatre, Sir Alexander Bustamante was on the platform alongside his cousin Norman Washington Manley. But, according to Professor Dr George Eaton, renowned scholar of economics and political science, a certain Englishman, William J Makin, who had come to Jamaica to set up The Jamaica Standard and be its editor, was denied admission, as were other journalists, to a "secret" meeting at Manley's home including Bustamante and Sir Stafford Crippsn — a British politician at the time who would become chancellor of the exchequer in the British Labour Party Government of 1945, and who gave the inaugural address at the PNP launch.
According to Professor Eaton in his book Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica, Makin was alarmed at the prospect of Jamaica having only one political party and called on someone to announce another party. "Manley is wrong in imagining that Jamaica will unite in forming a single, strong and solid political party." Makin used his newspaper to boost Bustamante's public appeal, pitting him against what he termed a small group of radical half-baked intellectuals, all avowed communists whose ultimate intention was to use both Manley and Bustamante to achieve their own purposes then ditch them.
While Manley dismissed this as mumbo-jumbo, Bustamante, the book says, took his cue and proclaimed at a North Parade meeting: "There is a communistic group working behind the scenes of this PNP being formed...What they aim to do is bring about the fall of myself and Mr Manley in turn, and then ride to Legislative Council power on the shoulders of a Labour Party they hope to control."
In the ensuing months, a rocky relationship between the two famous cousins, both supporting and opposing each other on various issues, was played out, but more so the tenuous relationship between the PNP and the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU).
During Bustamante's detention, things came to a head when the BITU Acting President H M Shirley, supported by Manley, accused Bustamante of squandering the union funds for unaccountable reasons. But, despite their continuing onslaughts, Bustamante received the overwhelming support of the workers who said he had helped them more than he had helped himself. The rift widened even further when Bustamante was released from detention, and it was alleged by Manley and other detractors that the labour leader had signed an agreement with Governor Richards that he would denounce the PNP and dissociate himself from it. After all, it was no secret that the British Government at the time feared the presence of a socialist if not communist-oriented PNP. Eventually, it was denied by various officials that any such agreement was made.
In September 1940, at the PNP's Annual Conference, Norman Manley declared that socialism does involve a demand for the complete change of the basic organisation of the social and economic conditions under which we live. If it involves anything less than that then it is something less than socialism..." And Professor Eaton noted that Manley attempted to allay the fears of Comrades by emphasising that: "You are not being committed either to revolution or to godlessness."
The ironic twist is that the PNP was conceived by Manley and his main followers as a Labour Party in the tradition of the British Labour Party, which is a socialist organisation. Prior to its September 18, 1938 launch, Manley had indicated during the height of the disorders in Kingston in May that the time was ripe for a Labour Party. Again, Professor Eaton provides us with valuable historical details as he writes that one C Beckford complained that a Jamaica Labour Party had already been launched at a public meeting in Kingston on 12th April 1937 and that contact had been made with the British Labour Party.
"O T Fairclough, founder and manager of Public Opinion, who did the spadework in the launching of the People's National Party, decided to drop the use of Jamaica Labour Party in deference to Beckford's complaint to him also. Eventually, after a historic debate which lasted for hours, it was decided by a narrow vote to call the party "national" rather than "labour" party. And the rest is history.
Fast-forward to the present and it is fair to say that, while the parties have dissimilar outlooks and views, there has been a growing congruence, especially as both now embrace capitalism, although some will still argue that the PNP is or ought to be a socialist party. After the end of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was "mashed down", socialism took a back seat to the extent that one of the greatest bastions of the communist doctrine, the People's Republic of China, has been in the bosom of capitalism. From the days of the Kareeba back to jacket and tie, the PNP has sought to keep up with the ideological ups and downs on the world stage while seeking to bob and weave between the North and South in a bid to sustain its fragile sovereignty battered by adverse economic waves and the attendant social fallout.
Today, it is safe to say that the JLP, which started out as a party "built by labour (the poor and working class)", has shifted more to the business, middle and upper classes, while the PNP has become increasingly attractive to the former, plus an appreciable number of middle-class supporters, particularly those over 50 years old. It was Michael Manley who fostered this demographical shift through his dalliance with democratic socialism emboldened by social engineering, although he himself had all the trappings of an upper middle-class upbringing (including his colour). The potent question is, should the PNP return to its socialist roots or, as it has been trying to do, mix socialism with elements of capitalism in the hope that capital and labour can co-exist or co-mingle in a mutually acceptable and profitable way?
It may well be that one of the reasons so many Jamaican voters are increasingly becoming disenchanted with both parties is that neither party has emerged with a certain distinctiveness and a fixity of purpose. In this vein, it behoves both parties to seriously think of rebranding themselves in a bid to attract especially the younger generation who for the most part see them as one of the same. More anon.
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica. firstname.lastname@example.org