The 1970s: The cream floats to the top (Part 4)

Sunday, December 16, 2018

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The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had been restructured into a disciplined and well-organised campaign model capable of endurance. In January 1980, at a retreat in Montego Bay, I restructured the party machinery into functional areas of operation: administration, finance, campaign, organisation, publicity, manifesto, transportation, equipment, and electoral affairs.

A national chairman was appointed for each portfolio from among party leadership and a corresponding parish-based chairman for each subject area. All parish committees were manned by a chairman and appointed members recruited from among volunteers.

The new structure worked smoothly. Nothing like this had been done before because the JLP, historically, had a problem finding sufficient personnel with the necessary capabilities. The People's National Party (PNP) had no such problem since their middle class support, from which the leadership personnel were drawn, was deep.

The changing political class affiliation created by Michael Manley's policies of social and political exclusion of the middle class and the business community had now created a broad band of support for the JLP across urban upper St Andrew as well as rural residential areas where there was traditional support for the PNP previously. The committees were now able to be well staffed and functional.

With the new structure in place at the parish level, I introduced a further change which appointed the party agent in each polling division of a constituency as chairman of a team of local electors chosen from residents to work the respective polling divisions continuously, not just for elections. The team approach generated new energies at the level of the smallest organisational unit, the polling division, strengthening the capabilities of the workforce. With a high level of motivation among supporters and workers, the new system worked well. The JLP had never been so organised and eager to perform.

The original strategy set out at the time of my appointment as leader of the Opposition had been working well also. At that time I indicated that with relatively little financial resources, and no State power to combat the powerful PNP Government machine, which was able to obtain both Government funding and publicly owned media support, the only resource available to me was my credibility with a background of successfully launching a number of far-reaching economic, social and cultural programmes in the 1960s, including the return of the body of Marcus Garvey to Jamaica in 1964.

I knew that I could read the economy better than the PNP policymakers and could predict the next step before it happened. This boosted my credibility, which came to a peak in January 1977, when I predicted an imminent 40 per cent devaluation of the Jamaican dollar. This was denied by the Government only to be admitted one month later when it occurred.

I also repeatedly emphasised that communism was the flip side of socialism on the same coin, giving a fearsome interpretation to PNP policies especially when translated into a threat of establishment of a Cuban-style communist model of society in Jamaica, for which Manley indicated an admiration in an interview to a Soviet correspondent in January 1979.

As a result of these tactics, there was a reversal of credibility from Government to Opposition. Government did not help the situation by frequent withdrawals and denials of statements by Michael Manley.

The final leg of the trio of strategies was the addition of a human rights programme which had an abundance of opportunities to condemn State atrocities and enabled the Opposition to offer to the public a well-prepared and promoted human rights programme dealing with electoral malpractices, terrorism by certain elements in the security forces, discrimination, victimisation, and so on. This was well accepted and became the third major plank of the strategy.

Underlying these strategies was my analysis that socialism had within itself the seeds of its own destruction, provided fair elections could be held. Radical socialist states had to maintain themselves by dictatorial powers of control to ensure that the people conformed to radical State policies rather than pursue their own initiatives for personal gain, or to pursue personal interests, the mantra of capitalism.

The PNP strategy, on the other hand, was to start with a soft system — democratic socialism — then progress toward a radical model based on the Cuban/Soviet system. Manley misread the inter-digitation of the classes in the social structure, which was an organic whole unable to be separated into class layers to be pulled apart, layer-by-layer, without damaging interaction.

The social model of egalitarianism fell apart on this mistaken strategy of “pulling down” the class layer above instead of “pulling up” the layer below. The damage was the withdrawal of support for the economy by the holders of wealth, because of the creation of an unsure future with seemingly overwhelming risks.

If Manley had pursued the strategy of Marcus Garvey of pulling up — infusing self-pride in race and colour with stirring exhortations to the people to “lift themselves to the stars” without “allowing anyone to deny their humanity” — the slower but surer benefits to people of African descent could have been substantial.

Manley's oratory and eloquence would have been precisely what was needed to engineer a smooth but timely flow from social exclusion to greater inclusion and acceptance of a new social order of respect for race and colour.

His social projects, while greatly appreciated by the poor, could not be maintained by an equally poor economy. In the end, it was the excellent package of social legislation passed to remove social stigmas and inequalities between classes and gender which endured the rough passage and became his legacy of lasting positive achievements.

Culturally, peeling back of prejudice to allow greater respect for race, colour and the recognition of identity had released pent-up emotions. At last, in the view of the people, “black man time come!” If the cultural change had proceeded on these lines without interpreting this new respect as an empowerment to be undisciplined and vengeful, a positive acculturation would have occurred. The formation of the Home Guards, legally carrying weapons and having powers of arrest, without training, as well as the Brigadistas trained in military tactics, gave lethal power to men with limited literacy. An aura of legality for these two terrorist-designed forces was a breeding ground for much of the daring, organised criminal activities of the future.

These were the opposing issues with corresponding strategies on which the general election would be fought. But in the mix, the economy would be the prime factor for consideration in the vote. Setting the deeper issues aside, time was now winding down to the election month, October.

The new electoral administration — the Electoral Advisory Committee — was now in place. It was established, as discussed earlier, on a bipartisan basis which removed final decision-making in electoral matters from politically biased ministerial control. There remained one last major hurdle in the campaign.

The level of violence, political and otherwise, was not decreasing. It was increasing rapidly and sometimes inexplicably so. Between January 1 and July 1, 1980, the police report stated that 350 murders were committed — that is an average of two per day. But from July 1-25 there were 114 murders in 24 days, nearly five per day. This seemed unbelievable: more than twice the average of the previous six months.

A new direction was also emerging: attacks on police stations. In Kingston, the Hannah Town Police Station had been attacked in April 1980. But on July 7 more than a dozen gunmen, with a range of weapons including M-16 rifles, opened fire for more than one hour on the station at 1:45 am.

Two days later the Trench Town Police Station, a bit more than one and one half miles away, was attacked by gunmen who had earlier ambushed a police vehicle from the station. Over “100 shots were fired” at the station, the news report in the Gleaner stated.

Soon after, the Rockfort Police Station, on the other side of Kingston, and the Exeter Station in the rural parish of Clarendon were also attacked by gunmen. This was a radical departure from the usual pattern of gang violence; but in keeping with the reckless abandonment of discipline in the new renegade order, it left unanswered questions as to what else was now in the equation.

In his opinion poll findings published in July 1980, Professor Carl Stone spelled out the futility of all the sinister leftist intrigue built up over the recent past. By a series of pointed questions on propaganda on sinister issues, he elicited the following answers:

With these answers, the picture became clearer on what to fear, or believe, and what not to.

But with three months remaining from the beginning of July to election in October, the election month, the death toll rose steeply with continuous killings to the very end.

Using figures supplied by the police and published in the Daily Gleaner, the tally showed continuing reports on killings:

September 9 - 305 killed by gunmen in eight months. 125 in July alone, down to 31 in August as soldiers called out.

September 25 – Gunmen kill 24 in one week.

September 27 - Five slain in city within 12 hours.

October 7 - Gunmen kill 359 January to September.

October 14 - Junior Minister Roy McGann killed in a shoot out with the police in Gordon Town Square, the night before the election when he stormed into a JLP meeting with guns blazing.

October 15 - Gunmen kill 11 across the island in 24 hours.

October 16 - Gunmen kill seven more – 16 since Friday.

October 30 - 14 killed across the island as PM tours (relating occurrence on October 29, the eve of the election).

Between January and December a total of 943 persons were killed.

The intense passions built up over the decade, the recriminations for acts of cruelty, the deep belief that the injustices of the past had to be settled, the struggle to maintain or gain a favoured position with the electorate so as to reap political benefits and the long period within which these emotions would contend, drove passions to the deepest level of any electoral period in the history of the country.

The final poll on the general election was published on October 28. The projected standing of the two parties was JLP 42-45 and PNP 15-18 seats.

Stone published his views in the Gleaner on October 12 as to why the JLP would win. Some of the man points were:

“Michael Manley's overwhelming popularity among the electorate in 1976 has dramatically declined while Hugh Shearer has emerged as the most popular leader in the country and Eddie Seaga as the man seen by the voters as most equipped to manage the affairs of the country in its present state of economic crisis.

“In 1976 the JLP was tarnished with an image of being a party provoking violence while the PNP had a very clean image in the minds of most voters. In 1980 both parties are seen as being involved in political violence although voters have more fear of the PNP guns.

“In effect, the 1980 campaign was virtually a replay of the 1976 campaign. The real difference lies in the fact that the mood of most of the country had swung against the PNP primarily because of the deteriorating economic situation. What this meant is that responses to the issues by the voters were quite different from what they were in 1976.

“PNP's attacks on Seaga are not hurting the JLP, as those voters who have shifted from the PNP or are unemployed and voting for the first time, have not decided to vote JLP out of any love or fondness for Seaga but out of a sense of frustration that the PNP is not likely to do any better in the third term than they are now doing, and out of a belief and hope that Seaga is likely to create a climate in which foreign and local business activity will revive and thereby create some jobs. Indeed, the PNP is aiding Seaga's credibility by labelling him as the man with powerful friends and connections in the US and among overseas investors.

“Michael Manley's crowd appeal is no longer the force it was in 1976 and the rural people have sensed that his confidence has been shattered. The impact of the PNP's media arm, the JBC, is not very strong outside of the Corporate Area where it has played an important role redefining the issues and discrediting the JLP.”

The long-awaited election day arrived on October 30. The intensity of the campaign, indeed, the decade, virtually guaranteed a record voter turnout. This was the case — an amazing 87 per cent of the electorate voted. No election prior to or since had aroused so much participation from all backgrounds. It was an all-inclusive election in the broadest sense.

Some of the elderly and infirmed photographed by the media in the line of voters waiting to cast their ballots were prime examples of the heroic effort they made, with determination, to have their own view recorded in shaping the future of their country.

I began the day with my usual visit to polling stations to ensure that everything was in order. I started in the small but heavily armed PNP enclave in the Matthews Lane area, at 7:00 am as the polling station opened. Better to get it out of the way first. But the gunmen were awake and ready for my visit.

I was pinned down by incessant gunshots fired up the street aimlessly, preventing me from crossing to my vehicle. This continued for some 15 minutes with the foreign media, which had indicated a desire to follow me, recording the shooting spree. Eventually the three police officers assigned to me decided to cross the street with guns blazing to force the gunmen to take shelter while I jogged across. The media got some action photos of my crossing with the security team blazing a path which was splashed over newspapers everywhere.

The rest of the day was peaceful as I was on friendly territory all the way, having dealt with the hostile area at the beginning of the morning. The media soon left me to find excitement somewhere else.

By five o'clock, as the polls were closing, I was in the radio room at my headquarters where a team of workers and volunteers had been in position all day. Within the first two hours, a definite swing to the JLP was detected. By eight o'clock a rout was evidently occurring and jubilation set in with the crowd gathered outside hearing the radio reports. By 8:30 pm victory was certain. Only the size of the victory remained to be settled.

I began the rounds by thanking my most valuable workers — Dawn Spence, Desmond McKenzie, Lorna Leslie, Charmaine Anderson and scores of others — the best in the island. If they had not stood with me bravely, ensuring that West Kingston did not fall to the attackers, the outcome would have been different. West Kingston was the rock of Gibraltar that was unconquerable. As such, it was a beacon for JLP supporters throughout the country.

West Kingston was won by me for the fourth consecutive time. The margin was, 94 per cent to six per cent — over 8,000 votes. The JLP eventually scored the greatest victory by any party then — 51 seats to nine for the PNP.

The usual practice was to head to party headquarters to hear the final unfolding details, congratulating other winners and thanking the national team. But before doing so I asked my wife, Mitsy, who was part of the most valuable team, to ask the Rev Herman Spence, her pastor and family friend, to come to our apartment. He welcomed the thought. Mitsy was a practising Anglican; I was christened in the church as an infant but was not a regular churchgoer.

That night I felt a need to humble myself before God and seek His blessing. As we knelt and lowered our heads, I asked Father Spence to pray for us and the country. The touch of his hand on my head seemed to be transmitting to me a solemn strength and quiet determination. We thanked him and left for the party headquarters which was overflowing with workers, well-wishers and candidates from nearby seats who had been victorious. The jubilation was as wild as it was possible to be while maintaining decorum.

Michael Manley made a short concession speech. “The people have spoken. They have taken a decision and we naturally accept that decision.” I called my victory speech an overwhelming mandate… no member of the PNP should fear the JLP victory because it was the intention of the party to bring into the mainstream of the public life of the country all the people of Jamaica.”

I knew that what was achieved that day was more than a change of party or Government. It was a paradigm shift of direction to ensure that the war against poverty would be the mission to ensure that “deliverance is here”.

The course of history was changed that day; unalterably to a new direction and, as the coming months would reveal, in the certainty that we had taken the right course at the right time, in the best interest of Jamaica.

The victory was welcomed as much by Jamaicans abroad. Their congratulations were an almost endless stream. Many had left in fear awaiting this signal to return. The usual congratulations from heads of state and government, Jamaicans at home and abroad, were received from across the world.

The climax was reached, the battle was over, but the war would swiftly shift to another battle, another issue, in another setting, at another time. That was the new mission of a new era about to be born.

— Edward Seaga is a former prime minister of Jamaica and currently distinguished fellow at The University of the West Indies and chancellor at the University of Technology, Jamaica

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