The Question of Age and Jamaican Politics
From as far back as I can remember, there has been a discussion regarding age and political representation. Many people opined that Jamaica’s political leaders were too old, and it was time for fresh blood to be pumped into the political system. This line of thinking was strengthened when the great liberal democracies of the United States and Great Britain elected forty year olds, in the persons of Barack Obama and David Cameron, to lead their countries. In an ode to youth, former Prime Minister Bruce Golding effectively prejudiced the race to replace him by calling for a new generation of leadership; realizing they had lost both the battle and the war, the old men of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) dropped their weapons, and lined up behind the youngest of the lot. Thus Andrew Holness was given a clear path to the leadership of the JLP and to Jamaica House. We are now two years on, and his position is under threat of a challenge; those of us who can see pass the here and now are realizing that the challenger, Mr. Audley Shaw, aged 61, represents a very risky gamble for the JLP. Mr. Shaw’s pending challenge brings the issue of youth and leadership to the fore, and if not treated carefully, it will have disastrous consequences.
In my last post on this subject, I made the case for a change in leadership style and tone. I only made passing reference to the fact that Mr. Shaw would not be able to cast a long enough shadow over Mrs. Simpson Miller’s heir apparent, Phillip Paulwell. At that point, I had not properly considered how profoundly important the ages of the incumbent and the would-be challenger are, especially in the context of our national politics. You see, whoever emerges the victor of this contest will have to face a new look PNP. That new look is not just the heir apparent Paulwell, but a slate which includes Anthony Hylton, Peter Bunting, Lisa Hanna, Mark Golding, and even Damion Crawford, Raymond Pryce and Dr. Dayton Campbell. Almost immediately, Shaw is relegated to the unfortunate heap we have reserved for those we deem over the hill and far gone pass the mark. This will be a real problem. Particularly if age becomes a central theme in the next general elections, which it very well might be. The PNP has been at great pains to stress their efforts towards succession planning and continuity, and should the old guard of Simpson Miller, Davies, Clarke, Pickersgill, Phillips etc. step aside, you can bet your last dollar that the next tier will tout the PNP as the party of renewal, transformation and growth, an argument that could gain serious traction among voters. Should Shaw prevail, that argument would be juxtaposed to a JLP led by a leader who is closer in age to those the PNP has put out to pasture than those who would at that time be in leadership. This will be a very real consideration for voters, as increasingly we are hearing sustained calls for a different kind of leadership, and while it does not necessarily follow that youth will inspire a difference in style, it is a persuasive argument, at least on the surface. There is a reasonable expectation that the generation gap should result in a different approach. There are voters who will be persuaded, particularly the apathetic youth of our nation, and those who are tired of business as usual.
Of course, there is a place in our politics for senior parliamentarians; I am in no way suggesting a purge of the elderly. They are expected to provide much needed guidance, an approach which has worked well in the United States. Upon securing the nomination of the Democratic Party, Obama was keen on choosing a veteran of the Senate, Joe Biden, to bolster his foreign relations and national security credentials. The result of a new vision for the country in Obama, and a steady hand in Biden, was a landslide victory. Audley Shaw must see the value in this. The timing of his challenge is ill advised. The JLP is only just now improving its electoral fortunes and being seen as more attractive to Jamaicans. If Mr. Shaw had been seriously concerned, he should have mounted his challenge immediately after the party lost both the local government and general elections. That was when the party was at its lowest and demoralized. Beyond that, it is almost an accepted convention in politics that you challenge a leader when he/she leads the party to defeat, in Andrew’s case, not once but twice. If Shaw was truly interested in salvaging the fortunes of the JLP, that would have been the time. He missed that ship, and now it appears he is intent on capitalizing on the gains made by Holness’ leadership.
Where was Shaw’s ambition and eagerness when Edward Seaga led the JLP further and further into the wilderness of opposition? It did not occur to the goodly Man-A-Yard that something wasn’t right? Why wasn’t he as determined as he is now to right the wrong? Was Seaga too much for him to take on? If so, there is the uncomfortable perception that this is more about him than it is about the JLP. It would appear Holness is an easy target because he is a young man. We repeatedly make the mistake of thinking anything different from what we are accustomed to is weakness. Delegates must not take the bait; they must reject the clear attempt to take advantage of someone else’s hard work. Shaw’s role at this point should be to support and enable a JLP election victory, as he looks towards retirement. There is nothing more unfortunate than not knowing when to let go, far too many of our politicians don’t realize when their time has come. The average Jamaican retires by 65, our politicians must take heed. Audley must take heed, and not tear the party asunder under the guise of democracy. If it isn’t broken, there’s no need for a fix, no matter how democratic that fix purports to be.
Jamaica is at a critical point in our history. As a country, we have some difficult choices to make, and one of them will be which vision and direction we will adopt for this country. The PNP has made the first move by securing a younger second tier to move the country in a new direction, the JLP now has the same choice. The delegates must not miss this opportunity to create an exceptional match up come 2016. If this chance is not utilized properly, the delegates would have failed to renew and reposition Bustamante’s party. They would have failed Jamaica.