TOMORROW night's meeting of the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP)'s Standing Committee at Belmont Road, St Andrew, will mark the sternest test yet for the party since the hint of a challenge to its leader, Andrew Holness, became public last month.
The committee, which meets weekly to discuss internal, as well as external issues on which the party takes positions, will have to decide whether or not the 25 constituencies which failed to meet an extended deadline of May 15 for registration, should be able to send delegates to the conference in November, at which a leader might be chosen.
Issues like these are not new to either of the two main political parties. In 2008, the appellate commission of the People's National Party disbanded some 900 groups suspected of being "paper groups", prior to the contest between Portia Simpson Miller and Dr Peter Phillips; and in 2012 barred non-paid-up members from participating as delegates, and relegated them to the role of observers.
However, the passions generated by the current JLP campaign are characterised by emotional charges, such as a struggle for the soul of the party pitting the young guard against old guard, the grassroots against the elite and traditional politics against transformational leadership.
Emotions have flowed over into demonstrations at Belmont Road, face-to-face clashes between senior representatives and behind-the-scene manipulations and gestures, as most party functionaries strain to keep their choices close to their chests until the last minute.
In an effort to bring things under control and rev up the oversight mechanisms, Holness moved last Wednesday to get the Disputes Resolution Committee, chaired by Leslie Campbell, to start dealing with the verbal clashes, which the party felt were bringing it into disrepute; roll out the highly respected Electoral Commission, headed by tough attorney-at-law, George Soutar, and including Electoral Commission representative Senator Tom Tavares Finson and veteran parliamentarian Derrick Smith, to start the oversight process; and get the Legal and Constitution committee, headed by another attorney, Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, agreed on a position regarding how to deal with the registration of delegates.
It is expected that the Legal and Constitution committee will advise the Standing Committee tomorrow night to allow all 63 constituencies to choose delegates for the conference, based on normal criteria, including the number of votes polled by the candidate, as well as the margin of victory.
This would be a victory for likely challenger Audley Shaw, as several MPs, including the controversial Everald Warmington (South West St Catherine), feel that only the constituencies registered by the extended deadline of May 15 should be allowed to select delegates. This would have excluded 25 constituencies, including Shaw's North East Manchester.
Inside sources told the Jamaica Observer that members of the Legal and Constitution Committee rejected an argument from Senator Johnson Smith that, although the term "registration of constituency" is used to refer to the procedure for registration under Rule 19 of the JLP's constitution, the Constitution does not require registration of constituencies, per se.
They also rejected Johnson Smith's view that there are "no express consequences of the failure to comply with the rule, and in particular no indication that registration in accordance with Rule 19 should be a condition precedent to the accreditation of delegates".
Johnson Smith contended that the rules recognise branches, not the constituencies. But, despite rejecting these arguments, the committee felt that a reprieve should be granted to the illegitimate constituencies to participate in a poll for leadership.
"We believe in the need for the registration, but we think that there is room for extending the period for registration to enable the (illegitimate) constituencies to be registered," one member explained.
However, there is still the fear that Warmington, who has been insistent that the constituencies and the deputy leaders must abide by party rules and constitution, may take the issue back to court if that advice prevails.
Warmington, apparently, would have support from a number of older party stalwarts, including some passionate supporters of Holness, as well as members concerned about continued disregard for the constitution and the rules.
The fact that Shaw, despite being one of the subjects of Warmington's attempt last year at an injunction blocking him and two other deputy leaders from re-election for failing to observe the requirement for their nomination 30 days before the conference, only registered his constituency on July 22, has made matters worse.
In addition, some Standing Committee members are suggesting that if the PNP could have removed over 900 groups from its formal list in 2008, and ban non-financial delegates from participating in last year's conference, why shouldn't the JLP ban constituencies consistently failing to observe the rules?
However, JLP general secretary Dr Horace Chang believes that the Standing Committee will favour whatever advice is given by the Legal and Constitution Committee Monday night, as is the norm.
As Chang told the Sunday Observer on Thursday, "it was highly irresponsible for the constituencies not to register within the deadline, but it would raise a question of the legitimacy of the process if so many constituencies were excluded".