73 years of universal adult suffrage

Michael Burke

Thursday, December 14, 2017

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Today is the 73rd anniversary of the first general election to the House of Representatives in Jamaica. For the first time ever, all Jamaican adults were entitled to vote regardless of whether they owned land or paid taxes. Coming with the 1944 political constitution was a provision for partial self-government. Greater autonomy would come in 1953 with the provision for a chief minister — as of 1959 referred to as 'premier', then changed to 'prime minister' at Independence in 1962.

Full internal self-government with the provision of a minister of home affairs came in 1957. In the last 40-odd years, this ministry has been divided in two: national security and justice.

In the 1944 General Election there were several parties and several independents contesting the 32 seats then available. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by Alexander Bustamante (Sir Alexander as of 1955), won the election by a landslide, gaining 23 of the 32 seats. Independent candidates, who collectively got the second-largest number of votes, gained five seats and the People's National Party (PNP) four seats. Ironically, Norman Manley was defeated by the JLP's Edward Fagan in St Andrew Eastern, although Norman Manley led the fight for self-government. Fred “Slaveboy” Evans, who won as an independent, switched to the PNP immediately on being elected.

In 1944, the PNP contested 19 of the 32 seats, having taken a decision not to contest seats in constituencies where they did not have an organisation — none in the county of Cornwall. The well known Allan “Father” Coombs, later a PNP minister of government, ran as an independent candidate in St James Northern, losing to the JLP's Iris Collins (later Williams) the first female legislator in Jamaica.

In the earlier elections, and perhaps up to 1989, a great percentage of the electorate voted on the issues as they perceived them, particularly as stated by the political parties at political meetings. Voters either voted JLP in appreciation for Bustamante and his role in getting higher wages through the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, or believed the anti-communist rhetoric that was levelled at the PNP in those days. On the other hand, some voted for Norman Manley, who expounded on his manifesto filled with plans for a new Jamaica or because they believed in 'brown man government'. Even so, there was greater spontaneity among voters, whose decision to vote was totally voluntary without being persuaded to do so on election day, as seems to be mainly the case throughout Jamaica today.

While organisation is arguably important to politics, it is my opinion that it really has gone too far in recent decades. Unfortunately, the need for low-income housing has been used by political parties to create garrison constituencies. I argue that the only way to curtail the growth of garrison constituencies is to change the system to proportional representation.

I also argue that the only way to bring back the days of issues by directing how voters make decisions in Jamaica is through education of voters in the policies of the parties, complete with a certain understanding of history. One problem with the teaching of history, though, is that it is usually presented as a boring subject by teachers who themselves seem not to be interested in history. This is many times the unfortunate reality, although the teachers may have a university degree in the subject.

Another problem is that history is no longer a compulsory subject in most high schools. Those with meaningful influence in Jamaica seem not to want the masses to know history because of fear that the masses would demand fundamental changes in the way society is structured.

And this has happened before in our history. Why was George William Gordon hanged for the Morant Bay Rebellion, although he was in Kingston at the time of the incident? In his book History of Jamaica, Clinton Black wrote that Baptists were not liked by the governor because they taught that the peasants were equal to the plantation owners. They were therefore seen as 'troublemakers'.

Self-government was resisted by the planter class prior to 1944 as with the abolition of slavery. But immediately following political independence in 1962, the brown-skinned middle class became the new 'baccra' in Jamaica. They did not want to share their power with the masses, and their strategy was to limit education to the subjects that are beneficial to them rather than the masses. This is true in other areas of life.

Most adult citizens vote spontaneously when angry, which motivates them to vote out a Government rather than to vote one in. It appears that the political strategy used by the parties is to make the masses comfortable with things previously considered to be luxuries so that they do not bother to vote in elections.

Are Jamaican voters more politically savvy today than before? I am not so sure. Despite greater educational opportunities and vigorous participation in radio talk shows dealing with current affairs, most voters seem to have fallen into a trap set by some politicians who do not want them to vote. This is our lot.




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