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Tufton's future uncertain at constituency 'send off'

BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large South/Central Bureau myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, February 14, 2014    

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BLACK RIVER, St Elizabeth — The question on every lip at a "send off" function for Chris Tufton in this south western seaside town on Sunday was 'what next?' for the former high-profile Cabinet minister and parliamentarian.

For the man himself, who recently announced his resignation as the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP's) standard bearer for South West St Elizabeth, the answer is simple, though infuriatingly vague for everyone else. "I will continue to pursue what I think is right and in the best interest of the organisation (JLP) and the country," he told the Jamaica Observer.

With a shrug and a chuckle, he sidestepped talk of a move to the 'safe seat' of Central Clarendon held for decades by the energetic veteran Mike Henry.

"I have heard so many things, 99 per cent of that has been propaganda, but I am accustomed to that now," said Tufton.

"I am prepared to accept all of the criticism and the rumours and the innuendoes. I have not been committed to any alternatives... as of now. My programme now is to reflect and to make some decisions going forward and I have always said that I am keeping my options open, I have always said that, never denied that," he said.

Pressed, Tufton suggested he would be amenable, subject to due consideration, to further political representation, perhaps even in St Elizabeth South West at some point in the future.

"I would be prepared to listen, but ultimately the decision would have to be influenced by my family, myself, and what's in the best interest of the party and the country," he said.

Crossing the political divide to the ruling People's National Party (PNP) doesn't seem to be an option, though Tufton believes that bipartisan co-operation is a must if Jamaica is to achieve sustainable socio-economic progress.

"I am a committed member of the Labour Party because I think that the Labour Party has many strengths," said Tufton.

"I have never, ever said that the Labour Party has all the solutions (and) I think Jamaica is at a point in our development when there needs to be consensus along critical issues, and I have always been prepared to collaborate with any organisation, including the PNP if necessary, on critical issues. Having said that, I am a member of the Labour Party and I don't intend to betray that commitment," he said.

In the circumstances, Labourites gathered at the send-off function had to be content with the words of former Finance Minister Audley Shaw, who Tufton had supported in last year's bitter JLP leadership contest. "Let us hope that this pause that Chris Tufton has called is a pause that refreshes..." Shaw said, while asserting the expectation that once "refreshed", Tufton would return to competitive politics.

Tufton's line of reasoning in his interview with the Observer suggested that it was his conviction of what is "right" which ultimately resulted in his decision to resign as caretaker for South West St Elizabeth, thereby withdrawing his name as a candidate for the next parliamentary general elections in that seat.

"I have always been independent-minded and I have always been influenced by my convictions... I have never felt that I need anything so badly that if it doesn't conform to my own personal convictions I still have to pursue it," said Tufton.

"People will interpret that in different ways, but that's just my feeling," he added.

Tufton, who arguably had been Shaw's strongest advocate in his challenge to former prime minister Andrew Holness for leadership of the JLP, had cited doubts about his (Tufton's) ability to unite Labourites in SW St Elizabeth following the divisive contest.

"I have concluded that the SW St Elizabeth JLP organisation would stand a better chance at electoral success if a candidate unaffected by the political controversies related to the recent leadership race unites the constituency to offer the formidable challenge necessary to return the seat to the JLP," Tufton said in a news release late last month which confirmed his departure as constituency chairman.

There are those within and outside the JLP, including some at Sunday's function at Port of Call Hotel in Black River, who clearly felt Tufton had acted too hastily.

"I was quite surprised (at the resignation decision)," said Derrick Sangster, chairman of Sunday's function and councillor for the Mountainside Division.

Sangster, a cousin of the late prime minister, Sir Donald Sangster, and a former member of parliament for South West St Elizabeth, was among those who broke with Tufton to support Holness in the leadership race. It was a position also taken by former mayor of Black River and councillor for the Pedro Plains Division Jeremy Palmer, as well as several senior members of the constituency organisation and a large number of voting delegates.

But Sangster feels that in the "dynamic world of politics" any "repercussions of the leadership race" would have been laid to rest by the next elections. The next parliamentary elections are constitutionally due in three years, though the prime minister can announce an election date whenever she chooses, before then.

"I felt that the constituency would have moved forward (before the next elections)... I just never thought that he was really entertaining ... the thought of resigning," said Sangster.

Tufton, who is the executive director of Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) — a think tank affiliated to the University of the West Indies (UWI) — sought to contextualise his decision.

"I am independent, I have worked hard, I have survived based on my own effort, and as a consequence I feel free-spirited enough to make decisions based on how I feel and what I believe," he said. "And I have always allowed that to guide me, and it is no different within the party. I believe I will remain an advocate for what I think is right and nobody can change that, nobody at all."

He insists that he is "an advocate of internal democracy" and therefore a strong believer in "the right of individuals to choose who they think is the best person to lead the party". However, Tufton said, issues of "trust" and "pockets of division" had arisen that would hinder his ability to lead the JLP's South West St Elizabeth constituency organisation.

"I have to work with people that I have confidence and trust in and there have been some issues of confidence and trust that I am concerned about... I would prefer to take myself out of that picture to allow a united approach, rather than to stay in that picture and not feel comfortable, moving forward, that there can be total trust and confidence," he said.

JLP loyalist and a senior member of Tufton's constituency organisation, Kaydean Senior, said the breakdown of "trust" was key.

"I think he was disappointed in some of his councillors, and also supporters here who have worked long with him closely... and the way they have behaved. I think what is happening in the constituency is that the trust is broken and... for him (Tufton) to get back unity to the constituency would be very hard," said Senior.

She felt, too, that the ousting of Tufton from the Senate was pivotal. "What Andrew should have done after the leadership race is (say) 'Okay, Chris, you have made this comment about bright people, now I want to show you that I am comfortable with you as a bright man', but what Anderw did in removing him from the Senate is show the whole public that he (Tufton) was right...," said Senior.

Tufton, who had earlier told scores of party workers, delegates, family members and friends that he needed time to "reflect" and "contemplate" before moving forward, told the Observer that constituency "unity" would be crucial for the JLP come the next election.

"I think that this constituency has particular characteristics — highest voter turnout in each election, a history of going with the winning party, and highly motivated party workers on both sides and ...what has emerged in the seat is a division about how we should move forward both as a party and, to some extent, as a constituency," he said.

Long identified as a swing seat, South West St Elizabeth was won by the PNP's Donald Buchanan by narrow margins for four successive terms spanning 1989 to 2007 while that party remained in power.

However, when the Bruce Golding-led JLP took power in 2007, Tufton defeated the PNP's Stanley Redwood — the latter having succeeded the retired Buchanan as PNP candidate — by nearly 2,000 votes.

Just four years later, that margin was completely wiped out, with the youthful Hugh Buchanan, son of Danny Buchanan, winning by 13 votes.

While he does not believe he is in a position to lead, Tufton is adamant that he will need to play a lead role in helping the JLP to retain St Elizabeth South West. Indeed, he feels he should be in a position to influence who succeeds him as the party's standard bearer.

"I am saying, I think I have served long enough and with some level of demonstrable commitment to appreciate and understand the dynamics of the constituency," said Tufton. "And I am saying, even in a minute way I could have influence on the levels of motivation of the people of the constituency."

He argued that the return of South West St Elizabeth to what he described as "superior" stewardship of the JLP was in his own enlightened self-interest, since he owns a home in Black River and a business (gas station and supermarket) at nearby Luana.

"I have a house down the road and I am not going to sell it," he told Labourites at Port of Call.

Senior has no doubt that Tufton must be part of the JLP's team in South West St Elizabeth. "If Chris doesn't go out there with that candidate, whoever that person is, it's going to be problems because people are blaming other people...," said Senior. "I think the JLP can regain South West (St Elizabeth) but it has to be a good candidate, someone with Chris there working with him or her."

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