75th anniversary of the JLP


Thursday, July 12, 2018

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It was on July 8, 1943 that William Alexander Clarke Bustamante launched the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). Bustamante was initially a member of the People's National Party (PNP) that was launched on September 18, 1938 — 80 years ago this year — and was, in fact,on the platform at the Ward Theatre when the PNP was launched. Bustamante had already founded the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) on May 23, 1938.

The riots at Frome Sugar Estate in Westmoreland in 1938 would be the start of an islandwide strike that was the catalyst to get the movement for self-government and universal adult suffrage into a higher gear. This was when Norman Manley said that what Jamaica needed was a political party to advocate the needs of the suffering masses and to advocate for self-government.

This caused a visit to Norman Manley from Osmond Theodore Fairclough and William McKenzie Sievright. In many respects, O T Fairclough can claim to be the real founder of the PNP. Because it was workers' rights that triggered the entire fight for self-government and political independence. It was recognised that the trade unions were very powerful.

While the BITU was the first blanket trade union in Jamaica (called 'blanket' as it covered all of Jamaica), there were also other fledgling trade unions all over Kingston. In 1939 the Trades Union Advisory Council, comprising all of the small trade unions, was formed. Bustamante refused to have his BITU join the Trades Union Advisory Council, so the PNP had among its affiliates the Trade Union Advisory Council separate and apart from the BITU.

In 1939 the Second World War started in Europe. Bustamante was arrested under emergency war regulations and the PNP ran the BITU in his absence. Bustamante was detained for 18 months between 1940 and 1942. Upon his release from prison Bustamante accused the PNP of trying to take the BITU away from him. Bustamante split with the PNP in 1942, and in 1943 he launched the JLP.

The fact that Bustamante made a statement that if he were in the governor's shoes he would have done the same thing in arresting him, convinces me that a deal was indeed struck between Bustamante and then Governor Sir Arthur Richards. The British were not for self-government and therefore thought of ways of 'divide and rule'. They acceded to the request for independence in the colonies during the Second World War when the colonies became a burden to them.

But with the JLP being formed, Jamaica became perhaps the only country in the world with the formation of two solid political parties even before self-government was ascertained. However, the PNP continued its fight for universal adult suffrage and self-government. This is an important part of the discussion because without adult suffrage, of what use would be the political parties if not to compete for political power?

The late Richard Hart wrote in the Sunday Gleaner on January 1, 1995 that the USA was instrumental in getting self-government for Jamaica. They were tired of the red tape of the governor writing to England for permission to trade with the USA. And with Great Britain asking the USA to enter the Second World War on the side of Britain, the USA laid down some conditions, one of which was self-government for the colonies.

In November 1944 the new governor, Sir John Huggins, announced self-government and universal adult suffrage for Jamaica. There would be several parties contesting the December 14, 1944 General Election.

Of the 32 seats available, the JLP contested 32, the PNP contested 19, and the Jamaica Democratic Party (JDP) contested 14. The JDP was made up of the large landowners and the senior merchants. In addition, there were several small parties and independent candidates.

The JLP, led by the charismatic Alexander Bustamante, won 23 seats, Independent candidates won five seats, and the PNP won four seats. Clearly the influence of the BITU had an effect on the election. The PNP reacted by organising the Trades Union Advisory Council into the Trades Union Congress as a blanket trade union base in 1945.

In 1944 Norman Manley himself lost his bid for St Andrew Eastern. It was a strange irony that the man who led the fight for self-government would himself become a casualty of the first general election under universal suffrage.

One independent winner, Fred “Slave boy” Evans, the new Member of the House of Representatives (MHR) for Westmoreland Eastern, immediately joined the PNP, giving them a tally of five seats. Another independent winner, the MHR for Portland Eastern, Harold Allan, was appointed minister of finance and general purposes.

The JLP won again in 1949, although they gained fewer votes than the PNP. The JLP went into Opposition in 1955 with the first PNP victory and lost again in 1959. Between 1958 and 1961 Jamaica entered the West Indies Federation, but Bustamante was not in favour of federation and caused Manley to call a referendum and the people voted to secede.

The JLP won the general election in April 1962 and Bustamante became prime minister. Since political independence the JLP prime ministers have been Bustamante, Donald Sangster, Edward Seaga, Bruce Golding, and Andrew Holness.

Although the JLP has survived 75 years, it has been dogged with disunity ever since Bustamante stepped down from active politics. Bustamante himself was concerned that this would happen and this is recorded on page 244 of Alexander Bustamante and Modern Jamaica by George Eaton.

While the PNP has always been centred on its programme, the JLP tends to be centred on its leader. At the present time it is held together only by the fact that they have a small majority in the House of Representatives, and if they split they will not be in power. But how long this unity will last is anyone's guess.


Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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