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Shaw's reinstatement necessary but not sufficient to close the divide

CLAUDE ROBINSON

Sunday, February 02, 2014    

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AUDLEY Shaw's reinstatement last week as Opposition spokesman on finance is a step towards healing the wounds opened up by the divisive leadership contest last November. But Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Leader Andrew Holness has to quickly apply more remedial measures to give the party a fighting chance in the next general election.

Mr Holness knows he has work to do. Addressing last Sunday's Area Council One meeting at Olympic Gardens Civic Centre in his West Central St Andrew constituency the JLP leader said, "We have less than a year to get our house in order."

The need to resolve outstanding issues was also underscored by former JLP leader and prime minister of Jamaica Bruce Golding.

Responding to questions on Nationwide Radio Thursday evening regarding Mr Holness' stewardship over the past two years, Mr Golding acknowledged that "there's still some way to go" to recapture the spirit of unity demonstrated by the contenders on the platform at the National Stadium car park right after the election results were announced on November 10. He regretted that that spirit was not "seamlessly followed through".

Are they back on track now? Some party insiders said the reappointment was inevitable, given that Mr Holness had responded positively to some of Mr Shaw's concerns; but they shared the view that it was not sufficient.

It seemed fairly certain that some of Mr Shaw's backers for leader, who had also been sidelined, could soon find themselves back home into the front ranks of the JLP in Parliament and the councils of the party. "Everybody is talking to everybody," one insider told me.

In the wake of his unsuccessful challenge for Mr Holness' job as JLP leader, Mr Shaw declined a seat in the shadow cabinet after Mr Holness made it clear that some of the people who were against him in the leadership contest would be sidelined.

Edmund Bartlett refused the role of spokesman on foreign affairs, suggesting a presumption of entitlement to the tourism portfolio which he carried as minister; Christopher Tufton (foreign affairs and foreign trade), Marissa Dalyrmple Philibert (education spokesperson), and Gregory Mair (industry, commerce and energy), were also casualties. Delroy Chuck asked not to be considered.

Tufton, a former deputy leader and senator, seemed to be the person most directly in the cross hairs of the opposition leader's fire.

Mr Tufton's political future is now in deeper uncertainty because, just as Mr Shaw was returning to the Opposition front benches, the former deputy leader announced he was quitting as chairman for the South West St Elizabeth constituency, though he pledged he was still a loyal Labourite.

A strategic move to wheel and come again?

Speaking with TVJ news Thursday night, he said the move was to give the party a chance to win the seat.

Given what transpired, he would be "a prime target" for the governing PNP in the next general election campaign. But Labourites in the constituency are upset; some were seen venting on TV that they would not be supporting the JLP if Tufton was not the candidate next time.

In December 2011, Tufton lost the marginal seat by just 13 votes. It was suggested to me that last week's announcement may be a strategic move that could eventually lead to a safer seat, perhaps a seat now held by one of the party's several septuagenarians in the House.

His supporters do not see Tufton giving up representational politics at this time. As Tufton put it, "I can't rule out anything. If the chance and the opportunity arose, then I would have to consider it."

In addition to the unfinished business of restructuring the shadow cabinet and party representation in the South West St Elizabeth constituency, there is also the lingering issue of the constitutionality of the opposition leader ridding himself of some senators.

It will be recalled that Mr Holness used undated resignation letters signed by seven Opposition senators at the time of their appointment to secure the removal of Tufton and Arthur Williams from the Senate.

That matter is before the courts as Mr Williams contends that the letters (which he had crafted in happier times) were intended to be used only to ensure that no Opposition member went against the JLP position in Parliament that adoption of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as Jamaica's final court of appeal should only come about by means of a referendum.

These actions, though clearly divisive, were part of Mr Holness' attempt to stamp his authority on a party, some of whose leadership had questioned his political toughness and ability to stand up against the popular and charismatic Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. The bitterness contrasted with the dulcet tones in the immediate aftermath of the vote count.

"When we join forces no political party can beat us," declared Mr Holness after it was announced that he had polled 2,704 or 57.3 per cent of the votes, compared to 2,012 (42.7 per cent) for the challenger Mr Shaw, a former deputy leader of the party and long-standing MP for North East Manchester.

In a similar extension of the proverbial olive branch of unity to his former rival, Mr Shaw said, "I am willing and ready to join with you to rebuild the Labour Party."

The words, the handshakes and the body language on the platform suggested that the JLP had moved beyond the bitterness and divisiveness that characterised previous leadership challenges, especially during Edward Seaga's 30-year rule in which he crushed dissent with an iron fist.

Now, Mr Holness sounds almost desperate to put the party on a path that can lead to victory at the polls.

He told delegates from the 15 Corporate Area constituencies which make up the party's Area Council One, "I don't have time for petty politics. I don't have time for personal feelings. I don't have time to be anchored down by imaginations of threats."

In time, it will be clear whether he's dealing with imaginary or real threats.

Meantime, I agree with Mr Holness that the party has, at most, only a year to get its house in order. This means having not just a well-tuned electoral machinery but a set of practical policy proposals on the key issues of growing the economy and reducing violent crime, especially murder.

To unseat the formidable Mrs Simpson Miller from her perch at Jamaica House, Mr Holness has a huge task of convincing a majority of voters that he has the personal ability, the team and the programme to be an alternative.

Under the constitution, the prime minister has all the way up to March 16, 2017 (within three months of the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament on January 17, 2012) to call a general election. Also, Local Government Elections are due by March 2015.

Either by way of an early general election or a local government poll, Mr Holness is running out of time to meet his self-imposed challenge of bringing the party together after a divisive leadership contest.

His words on the afternoon of last November 10 must still ring in his ears. "I know that every Labourite is concerned about whether or not we will be able to unite," he told the gathering. And he acknowledged his special responsibility when he declared, "Unity starts with the leader."

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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