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What is so hard to understand about millennial voters in Jamaica?

EVERTON PRYCE

Sunday, July 21, 2019

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It is widely accepted in the popular consciousness of the majority of Jamaicans that the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by its post-Independence leader in Prime Minister Andrew Holness, holds the advantage over the People's National Party (PNP) in successfully mobilising the euphemistic “youth vote”. Pundits and members of the commentariat class believe that the JLP was able to secure a very marginal one-seat victory over the PNP at the polls in 2016 in large measure on account of this advantage. And supporters of the ruling party are quick to explain that its current positive favourability rating, vis--vis the PNP, is not unrelated to its ability to remain “youth-focused” in government, coupled with its general activist outlook and profile in power over the last three years — present difficulties of accountability notwithstanding.

In light of this, and leading up to the next general election constitutionally due by 2021, both the JLP and the PNP are focused on capturing the lion's share of the millennial vote. Not, unexpectedly, a great deal of this focus by both parties — but more so for the PNP — inevitably centres on the effort of devising strategies and stratagems to deepen youth involvement in the democratic voting process.

For there is a grave and urgent sense of recognition that the voting demographic in Jamaica is undergoing rapid changes in favour of the 'youth phenomenon' shaped in no small measure by 21st century technological imperatives. And since a great deal of what politicians do need is luck, especially when good governance is rapidly declining in public esteem, we can expect our two main political parties from now on leading up to the next general election to raise the decibel of propagandising the promise of policies they hope — using Peter Bunting's words — will “inspire the youth”.

Such inspiration, in the opinion of this writer, is impatient of debate. It is, in fact, badly needed!

This is so, because, with the exception of the 1970s, young people in Jamaica, being a legitimate part of the masses, have suffered disappointments over decades of trial and error with successive political administrations. But now that the country is faced with mass withdrawal of enthusiasm for an increasingly structurally inept political system, there is urgent need for the affirmation of a political culture in need of repair by millennials in the 21st century if we are to rescue our fledgling democracy from further rust.

The Latin American Public Opinion Project survey of 2010 revealed that 54 per cent of our young people between the ages of 16-29 had no interest in voting or campaign mobilisation. More telling, only 10 per cent expressed confidence in Jamaica's increasingly dysfunctional Parliament. The credibility of these statistics takes on added significance when juxtaposed against Jamaica's pattern of voting trends between 1962-2016.

That trend demonstrates that at the dawn of our Independence, in 1962, voter turnout was 72.29 per cent, reaching a high of 86.1 per cent in 1980. But since then, the percentage of the population expressing enthusiasm for the voting process has witnessed a precipitous decline from 77.59 per cent in 1993 to 53.17 per cent in 2011, when, paradoxically, we had the highest number of people in the history of Jamaica casting their votes.

By 2016, however, our voting trend was to hit its lowest level, of 47.72 per cent, since the lowering of the Union Jack flag and the birth of formal nationhood in 1962. As a feature of the contradiction of our Independence, much of this decline has taken place even when there has been tremendous growth in the eligible voter population from 796,540 in 1962 to 1,824,410 in 2016.

Looking on at the seemingly endemic squalidness of our politics, and the way in which the political process has been perverted to the corrupt and vulgar self-interest of politicians, our millennials have chosen to disengage from mainstream politics today more than at any time before.

Sensing that the negotiated power from Whitehall in 1996 has not reflected itself in the equitable distribution of wealth within Jamaican society of which they are a part, or even in the distribution of opportunity to enjoy whatever wealth there is, even if it was made on the labour of the majority, the uncommitted and detached millennials in our midst have come to harbour passionate disdain for practising career politicians, and have chosen to express this attitude through low turnout in elections.

The 18-35-year-old millennials that I know and have had experience with, are obsessed with social mobility and are prone to relying upon themselves for career access — once they have a smartphone and access to a computer. They relish competition. If asked, the average potential millennial voter in Jamaica today will tell you that they would quickly substitute participation in “street protests” for indulgence in sceptical post-modernism, which would lead one to regard them as “right-wing conservatives”, or of being “a-political”. Such a reaction, however, would be misplaced.

The fact is that they despise raw political ideological battles and conflicts, and eschew intellectual political debates steeped in outdated utopian ideals. This is because they are in search of common values and not common branding. They want to relate to a moral message that is common to all; and they want to do this through channels of communication that make them feel at home politically.

In this context, the 'yard fowl' behaviour that characterises much that passes in our Parliament for serious debate cannot match a Facebook campaign on any issue of national importance. The venue of political discussion has changed.

What the PNP and the JLP must forcibly come to understand, therefore, is that the root of the problem with attracting millennial voters is not in whether they are turned off from politics completely, but that they were born in the age of revolutionary consumer choice and the Internet. News is now presented to them from a huge range of sources. Talk about “breaking news”? This is no longer reserved for Television Jamaica, CVM TV, RJR, or Nationwide Radio. Such news is now readily provided by bloggers, satirical comedy shows, WhatsApp messaging, and the likes. The free market for news is now fully embraced by the millennial generation and those much younger.

And the condition is real. Our two main political parties have come to the quiet realisation that the politics played out in Gordon House, in and of itself, cannot attract or impact new millennial voters, or voters in general, in the large numbers expected — except for when events there are posted on social media.

The take-away from this reality is that the 'inspiration' of the millennial voter towards which Bunting has set his sights can no longer come from the routine of party conferences, parliamentary affairs and happenings, as well as regional, divisional, and constituency meetings in stuffy classrooms. For, as news coverage is diversified and digitised, our politicians risk falling out of the headlines themselves; unless they are prepared to adopt to a new, different, and more discerning audience. If they fail to pre-empt this trend, theit is my opinion that it will be forced upon them by the inexorable shift towards online technology.

The discerning potential millennial voter in Jamaica cares deeply about issues of economic freedom, unemployment, productivity, and economic growth as much as anyone else. The problem, however, is that their cynicism towards politics is fed by the constant question-dodging indulged by our politicians and their use of vacuous slogans. Without a doubt, economic competence and long-term economic plans are important, but they are not enough in the age in which we live to bring millennials to the polling stations in droves.

What will stand the best chance of achieving this in the future are political parties that are accessible and exciting to them. Although I am, myself, not a member of the millennial generation, I make bold to suggest that this country needs politicians who can exercise the freedom to express original, radical views that will break through the static. A flood of repetitive slogans is likely to reinforce scepticism and lose swathes of potential millennial voters.

If the PNP and JLP are serious about creating a new Jamaican society to fit the realities of the 21st century, I suggest they begin by ditching the tired political language of the past 30 years, if only to escape the antipathy to the anodyne arguments that surround them. In other words, political arguments have to now enter unfamiliar linguistic territory to attract new demographics.

Just to caution readers of this newspaper, I am not here suggesting that to attract new voters our main political parties must undertake huge change in policy. On the contrary, the force of my argument is that their efforts leading into the next general election would be better spent trying to make their respective party the natural home of young voters as much as make the party an acceptable choice when it comes to policy discussions. The more forceful point is that if our politicians from here on out focus too much on issues specific to young people, they, inevitably, will run the risk of falling into the trap of appearing duplicitous. A better tactic, overall, is to explain the importance of party values on the campaign trail in relatable terms.

The ruling JLP may not win the next general election, but could sway the one thereafter. Equally, if the PNP builds up a support base of young voters now, the task of winning in elections to come will be immeasurably easier. But if either party runs the risk of ignoring millennial voters then they risk losing the most receptive cohort of young people ever. This would be a disaster for the party, the country, and our democracy.


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