On October 19, Jamaicans commemorated National Heroes Day, marked by pomp and ceremony at King’s House. But the holiday remains relatively low-key among the nation and Diaspora, with minimal reflection on the significant leaders of the past. This is unfortunate, as the island’s past leaders possess valuable lessons that are sorely needed in today’s political climate. As much inner turmoil churns among Jamaica’s political parties, today’s leaders have much to learn from their predecessors.
What stood out about leaders from the past was their commitment to serving the people they represented. Looking back at pre- and post-independent Jamaica, members of parliament were indelibly associated with their constituencies. For example, Edwin Allen – one of Jamaica’s outstanding education ministers – was always identified with his Clarendon constituency. Former Governor General Sir Florizel Glasspole was a stalwart for his East Kingston constituency, while former Prime Minister Hugh Shearer always maintained close connections with his Clarendon constituency.
It‘s difficult to recall from Jamaica’s history any constituency infighting among candidates to represent either the PNP or the JLP, as has been observed in recent months. Politicians like Allen, Glasspole, and Shearer were dedicated to their constituents, always striving to adequately represent their faithful supporters. In more recent years, the same commitment to constituency was evident with P.J. Patterson and his Westmoreland constituency, Edward Seaga and West Kingston, and Portia Simpson Miller and Southern St. Andrew. Interestingly, those politicians who maintained dedication to their constituencies were always reelected in succeeding general elections.
Jamaica’s heritage also displayed strong, dynamic political party leaders like Bustamante, Norman and Michael Manley, and Seaga. Today, this type of leader and the awe they inspired among party members has certainly paled. In several constituencies, as Jamaica currently prepares for a possible early general election, sitting MPs like the PNP’s Damion Crawford, government minister of state representing a St. Andrew constituency, and Patrick Anderson, Attorney General and MP from Trelawny, are being usurped from their constituencies. The JLP is also experiencing its constituency upheavals. But, despite this conflict, leadership from both sides remain silent.
On the other hand, what good would the intervention of party leadership serve? The voters in these constituencies seem determined to evict those who are misrepresenting them in parliament.
This rejection is mostly the representatives’ own fault. Unlike politicians from the past, some of these representatives enter constituencies, where they are basically outsiders, to seek election, and then provide little service to those who elected them.
A reformation is urgently needed in Jamaican representational politics. Firstly, it should be mandatory for political representatives to maintain some residential or business connection to their constituency. And when elected, even if appointed to serve in the ruling government’s cabinet, members of parliament must regularly visit and serve their constituencies, reporting periodically to parliament the results of their service.
Importing people into constituencies for the sake of winning parliamentary seats, then ignoring the voters, especially in rural Jamaica, must stop.
With such distrust and dissatisfaction among constituents, there is concern that voter turnout for the next election may be the lowest in Jamaica’s political history.
Jamaica’s politicians, particularly those recently emerging, need to study the nation’s political heritage. This heritage is only 71 years, but is replete with men and women who were fiercely committed to serving the people. The record of their great service mustn’t just languish in history books, but be used by their descendants as blueprints on leadership and service.