Tribalism in Jamaican politics

Diane Abbott

Sunday, August 26, 2012    

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THE University of the West Indies SALISES department last week staged a conference entitled 'Fifty-Fifty: Critical Reflections in a time of Uncertainty' to mark 50 years of Independence in the Commonwealth Caribbean. One of the most popular sessions was a round table on 'Detribalising Politics in Jamaica'.

The interest in this session obviously reflected the concern about the corrosive effect of political tribalism on Jamaican society. People were keen to hear answers to the problems and see politicians talk about it. The speakers included JLP veteran Pearnel Charles, MP; new young PNP junior minister Damion Crawford, MP; and JLP politician Marissa Dalrymple-Phillibert.

The discussion was moderated by Professor Trevor Munroe. There was some criticism, both during the session and afterwards, that the panel did not include any of the smaller parties. But it was still a fascinating discussion with some interesting interventions from the audience.

All the panellists spoke well and they all uttered ritual denunciations of tribalism. Further, they all claimed that there was no question of it in their own constituency. To what extent the audience believed them was another matter.

But perhaps the speaker who endeared himself to the audience most was Crawford. He appeared unbowed by the recent controversy about him tweeting about going partying in London during the Olympics. Perhaps the audience liked him the most because he was by far the youngest speaker and is thus untainted by the tribalism excesses of the past in both major parties.

But he was also funny, articulate and offered some practical suggestions to mitigate tribalism rather than just claiming that nothing like that went on in his own constituency. He also said the single most important thing in the whole discussion: He pointed out that most people did not want "fairness", they wanted "reverse unfairness".

In other words, PNP stalwarts railed against JLP politicians only giving jobs to JLP supporters, saying that it was "unfair". But when their own party was in power they got equally upset if PNP politicians gave jobs to JLP supporters.

There is no question that the excesses of tribalism are a big problem in Jamaican politics. But it's worth remembering that all politics is "tribal", if by that you mean an unreasoning and passionate support for your own party. Nobody who has ever seen a US Democratic Party convention on television can have missed the "tribal" enthusiasm and exuberance.

The bulk of British supporters of the two major parties may be more restrained than Americans and Jamaicans, but they are almost as vehement in their fervent belief in their party, "right or wrong". Furthermore, in America, in living memory, Democratic ward bosses in cities like Chicago distributed jobs and benefits to supporters in a manner familiar to Jamaican politics.

JLP MP Horace Chang was in the audience and he made the point that fervent party supporters can be a bulwark against tyranny.

It is arguable that the problem isn't passionate supporters as such. The problem with Jamaican political tribalism is where it melds with political violence. And the fundamental problem (which Damion Crawford put his finger on) is the extent to which politicians are the distribution mechanism for jobs, welfare and "scarce goods and benefits".

Tribalism is corrosive in Jamaican politics, partly because of the past culture of political violence, but also because the benefits your political party can deliver are literally a matter of life and death. Civil society in Jamaica has fought back against the culture of political violence. Now Jamaica needs to re-examine the extent to which politicians deliver goods, which in other countries, are provided by civil society or the welfare system.

Diane Abbott is the British Labour Party's spokeswoman on public health





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