Andrew Holness is better than Portia Simpson-Miller: the people have spoken again

I have no doubt that Andrew Holness is a popular prime minister. I have no doubt that he has surprised many people with the way he has led the country since assuming his position as PM just over a year ago. I have no doubt that part of his popularity is not based wholly on a positive assessment of what he has been doing, but a combination of that and a negative assessment of what his predecessor did–or more, accurately, did not do. I tested my opinion in a totally unscientific poll on Twitter, the results of which are shown below. As such things go, the number who voted (145) is more than decent. But, I would not like to take on Don Anderson if he said that many reasons exist why I should not trust the results. But, this is the world of social media, so I will thank Don, but march on regardless 🙂 My poll shows clearly that PM Holness is favoured by more than 2 to 1 over his predecessor.

Some would say, with reasonable truth, that the result of the poll was already known. After all, Mr. Holness led his party to a memorable national election victory a year ago, and also to a resounding victory in local government elections a few months ago. True, other than the fact that our elections are not for a national leader, but I accept that many people vote for the ‘top of the ticket’ when voting for local representatives.

I think the reasons for Mr. Holness’ popularity are several, and I am going to touch on a few.

He communicates, openly. Whether you like it or not, the world of social media is the window through which many now see the world. So, a politician who embraces that as a means of getting across his message is going to look good. Add to that a tendency to encourage others under him to do the same and you get an impression of more and more open communication. I would be lying if I told you that I did not think that his predecessor and many of her team were a communications disaster: unable or incapable of giving clear messages, or worse still living with the deadly sound of silence from on high, when a word or two from that place would have done much to cement the idea that someone was in charge, and the mice were not running the kitchen.

One of the things that happened under the Simpson-Miller administration, and which is hard to understand, is how Portia became an enigma, and almost a betrayal of herself. I have heard her speak with passion about certain topics, namely issues of equity and equality, especially for women and children. But, in her latter days, she hardly went to that well of good words and much commendable action, but floundered in the world of bigger policy ideas, especially on matters economic and financial. If I were a management guru, I would wonder how and why the management of voices was not better, at least in putting in front of the people the clear message that ‘the leader has a team of excellent ministers, whose words and ideas the people can trust’, rather than fumbling and bumbling on topics which had not been mastered. I say ‘mastered’ because it’s rare for a leader to really know all the portfolios, but good briefing and sticking to key messages can make a puppy seem intelligent. Worse still, PSM was turned into a badly functioning mouthpiece that went badly off-message when caught unawares, and was kept out of the public eye as a spokesperson so much that one had to wonder what was really going on. The puppeteers were pulling strings well, but the puppet often looked as if the strings were mostly cut.

The tendency to be unbelievable is something that the PNP administration seemed to embrace and sadly that was led by the leader.

It came with remarks such as how PSM felt the pain of ordinary people, when it came to inflation, and claiming to suffer this in her regular shopping. One need not even go to the perks that are the regular part of being a national leader to start guffawing. Rather than touch a supermarket, PSM could have at least seemed sympathetic had she been seen uttering those words at a regular ‘bend down’ market over a hand of ripe bananas.

It came with remarks, often repeated, about how much PSM loved the poor. So much so, the cynic said quickly that she led the march to create more of them. But, the PSM-led administration did so little to protect the poor or most citizens that the claim was as hollow as the middle of a doughnut. It was bolstered by the regular appearance of scandals that had much to do with cronyism, smelled of corruption, and had the indelible mark of wasting public money that the country does not have.

But, enough of the poor side of the poor-loving.

I think that the new PM has become a master of PR. I am not surprised by that, and am not totally critical of it. Messaging is important, and if it’s not well-managed then it can lead to unnecessary problems. One piece of PR that I have seen, and it’s a bit subtle is how the PM seems willing to step in front of problematic positions. It’s early, so one has to watch carefully how that plays out, but his recent remarks about how to deal with the monumental matter of violent crime and also the lesser matter of ‘music from prison’ suggests that he’s not just going to bend to populist positions.

I am not yet convinced about how boldly he will go on matters of corruption, governance and accountability, and am not happy to see that he let imoportant initiatives like ‘job descriptions’ for his Cabinet were not issued, but can understand his giving ministers another six-months to prove that they can deliver on their portfolios. We will have to wait to see how the poor performers are dealt with.

I’m also intrigued how certain holes that were dug with enthusiasm only for the dirt to start falling on top of his head get deatl with. If I say ‘Caricel’ will you say ‘not well’? (Note today’s story that a sale may be in the works.)

Just in case you think it, don’t! I am not a JLP supporter. My political position is independent. I do, however, try to see a spade for what it is.

“I am not a liar”: An iconic phrase for how long?

I’m a keen sports fan, and what better way to use the weekend time for relaxation than to take in a good slug of live sporting action. Now, many may not agree, but I see politics as another sporting contest. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think so.

In Jamaica, the sport of politics is played on many different pitches. This weekend, we had the annual conference of the official parliamentary opposition, Jamaica Labour Party. This time last year, the conference was all a dither over its leadership contest. Then-leader, Andrew Holness, has thrown out the challenge and aspirant, Audley Shaw, had picked it up and was running strongly, he thought, according to the polls. Well, they say that only one poll counts, and when the votes were counted, Audley (affectionately termed ‘Man a yard’) was licking his wounds. All was not sweetness and light on the day, and has hardly become so in the twelve months since. But, the battle between winner and loser has been out on the back burner. AndrewShaw
From my house, I could not hear the sounds of political revelry. However, I needed to go to New Kingston twice during the afternoon, and the nonstandard sound of a happy crowd–blaring vuvuzelas–could be heard loud and clear.

I was not really tempted to turn off real sport, like football and tennis, to tune into the political version, but was interested when the leader came to the podium. He’s been PM once, and seems to want to be PM again. He’s in a great position, because the current PM is presiding over a period littered with political banana skins falling all over the place, and she and her ministers are skidding on them with the greatest of ease. In most countries, if the government handed the opposition such easy targets most people would say that the government must fall. But, this is Jamaica. Partisanship, which is as tribal as can be, means that obvious sins and transgressions are either not seen by those of the guilty party or passed off as contrived by [fill in the gap to blame any other agent].

During the past week, the PM had one of those parliamentary performances in defence of the seemingly indefensible, regarding the use of National Housing Trust (NHT) funds to buy land that house a tourist attraction. She did not clarify the situation, and set off more questions about what actually had taken place, and (more disturbing to my febrile mind) sown huge seeds of doubt about her own oversight of a portfolio that is in her hands. The most stunning revelation was that she apparently did not know about the transaction, which took place early in 2013, until a few days ago, when it was reported in one of the local newspapers. If that’s the truth, it’s worse than farcical, given that the director of her office is on the NHT board. Is it really believable that such an official would be privy to actions taken within the portfolio of the responsible minister/PM and not utter a peep? It beggars belief. But, the PM had stridently told Parliament that she was as straight as an arrow.

That seeming contradiction–of a straight arrow, flying with a bent fashion–surfaced, not surprisingly, during Mr. Holness’ conference speech. He talked at length about the brewing ‘NHT saga’ and took the chance to put in front of his supporters, at least, and the nation, if interested, an interesting picture.

Politicians need contrast between each other. The obvious ones in this case, of one leader being male and another female, is not a contrast that can work positively in all cases. It could easily alienate a good segment of the voting public.

But, to be handed the contrast that is about truthfulness is almost a gift hoped for but never received. Mr. Holness boldly stated to his audience, that the PM had failed to meet a slew of promises made to the electorate. But, he went on: “I never butter it up. I never pretty it up. I tell you what was going to happen. I am not a liar.” (my stress).

A liar? Well, first, a politician would hardly say the opposite, now. Rather, the assertion of being truthful is  often stated–and taken with large doses of salt, by many. Or, the idea is left clearly in view that all that is being uttered is the truth. But, to state the negative leaves an interesting void to fill: who is a liar? In the mind of the partisan, at least, there’s only one answer. Second, no one said Mr. Holness was a liar, so what would prompt him to deny something of which he had not been accused? Answer. The assertion is meant to be a contrast. And to whom is he wishing to be contrasted? One guess.

Given the reactive nature of politics, I wait with bated breath to hear how the straight arrow deals with this.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Holness = wholesomeness?

In the middle of October, when the Jamaica Labour Party leadership race was raging, news reports focused on claims that opponent, Audley Shaw, had copied the ideas of incumbent, Andrew Holness: Mr. Shaw apparently was trying to claim ownership of a five-point development plan Holness had been promoting for the past two years. Mr. Holness’ team, dubbed “Team JLP”, issued a statement: “Team JLP maintains that the 5 Es of Development — Education, Energy, Economy, Environment and Efficiency — remain the cornerstone of the Holness’ platform, and has been developed through consultations within and outside of the JLP, maturing into a comprehensive development framework for Jamaica.” What interested me about that little spat was that both sides were fighting essentially for the same mental space in the heads of those who would vote for them. In other words, the two candidates were not separated by any substantial difference in ideas and policy outlook. In which case, it’s interesting to speculate about what made delegates opt for one man over the other.

I was not present at the voting area, but judging by what I saw, the differences were more ‘about the man’. Mr. Holness has relJLPwinnerB20131110JBative youth (aged 41, compared to Mr. Shaw’s 61 years). That youthfulness may suggest to some more of a true future leader for the long haul. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that this factor might have translated into better support for policies that focus on the future of the country’s younger people. The ‘5E’s’ may sit better as a mantra that says “Holness” in that it looks like the things he could really push through. As a former Minister of Education, he may seem more credible on the first and very important element of that platform.

Mr. Holness was accused on many occasions of not being aggressive enough in his tackling of the ruling PNP. That may also represent something in his favour, given that the tendency for ‘ray-ray’ politics of Mr. Shaw did not seem to be attractive to many. Put another way, the time may be coming when voters want someone who stands in stark contrast to the old-style rambunctious politician who has strutted on the Jamaican political stage. In my mind, ram goat politics–butting heads and kicking dirt–may be dying, albeit slowly. Of course, there is always room for good, old, down and dirty politics: when all else fails, go for the jugular.

Mr. Shaw and his team are reportedly doing a post-mortem of their defeat at the hands of delegates last Sunday. One thing that is not political, but might have been significant, was the ‘hospitality’ showered on delegates. From what I read, food, drink, tee-shirts, chairs, buses, overnight accommodation, and more, might have been helpful in ‘swaying’ voters, particularly any so-called ‘undecided’ persons. Judging by reports of how fast Mr. Shaw’s voters fled his ‘tent’ after the results were known, it seems that his support went the way of many a meal forgotten once bellies began to feel empty.

One other aspect that might have played in favour of Mr. Holness was his apparent willingness to state beforehand that he has no intention of still being in politics at Mr. Shaw’s age. Whether he pushes the idea of term limits–as some like Mike Henry have–is not so much the issue. He’s made a clear statement that politics is not for life and not his only life. He sees doing public service as a phase. That may put him on a very different plane than many of his political colleagues and we will need to see how, and if, that idea recurs as general elections approach.

Finally, was Mr. Holness perceived as just more wholesome? If so, he may represent something of a new Jamaican political image in keeping with some of the more positive elements of ‘brand Jamaica’. He’s not portraying himself as much of a bad or rude man (or boy). He’s not shied away from ‘accusations’ of being cerebral, though he’s treading a fine line when it comes to whether he’s too smart.

His soft-spokenness might have been associated with weakness in the minds of many voters, but he can point out that his brand of softness has left him as a victor. Could ‘the nerd’ really beat off ‘man a yaad’?

I don’t know if Mr. Holness is a student of Chinese strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu and ‘The art of war, but some may find it useful to pay attention to some of his views on ‘warfare’. For instance:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Hoo-ray for Andrew: no more Ray-Ray?

So, it’s official. Andrew Holness was confirmed in his position as Leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) by a special delegates council yesterday, with 2704 delegates voting for him, against 2012 voting for contender, Audley Shaw.Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 7.20.44 PM The contest for leadership is settled. Now, can the party settle itself?

The main contenders were all smiles and handshakes immediately after the results were announced. Mr. Shaw was quick to indicate “I am willing and ready to join with you, to build back the Jamaica Labour Party, to bring back love to the Jamaica Labour Party,”. He also promptly tendered his resignation as Opposition spokesman on finance, so that the leader could have a “free hand” and pick the team he wanted to go forward.

Although talk has moved quickly to the need for unity and healing within the JLP, after what was a bitter, if not bruising contest, it wont be that simple. Senior JLP MP Derrick Smith touched on what the JLP body had suffered: “wounds have been very, very deep” The campaign was full of accusations and counter claims–not really that unusual in politicis, and very normal in Jamaica. However, immediately after the election results, some of Mr. Holness’ supporters (e.g. Everald Warmington) had reportedly been quick yesterday to say the equivalent of “good riddance”, shooing them off the stage at the National Arena, once the results were known. Bringing the love back will not be as easy as sending Valentine’s cards.Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 8.06.45 PM

Mr. Shaw put a brave face on defeat and took to the high road, saying that this was a “great day for democracy in the Jamaica Labour Party.” Mr. Holness also wanted to signal that he thought civics were the winners, saying this was a “victory for democracy within the JLP and the grassroots people of the party.” The party’s democratic processes had been put to the test and appeared to have come through with some degree of success. But, that is only part of the whole battle.

The ultimate challenge is to beat PM Mrs. Portia Simpson-Miller and the People’s National Party (PNP)in the next general election. The PM has just been in Japan on an official visit and was reported to be regaling her hosts about the beating she’d put on Mr. Holness at the last election. That was an odd thing for a nation’s leader to do, but Mrs. PSM knows what sells at home and while the JLP were about to say “Hooray” to their new leader, she was reminding them that the Queen of Ray-Ray was alive, kicking and ready to mash whoever wanted to take her on.

It’s hard to believe that JLP’s unity can be willed by a few words and smiles, and like with real wounds a good amount of time will be needed to heal the rifts that were opened in the past few weeks. But, will they be given that time? Whatever the first order of business today to rebuild a team to take on the PNP in Parliament, the JLP should know that it has to be ready to take on PNP at the polls.Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 8.09.31 PM

Ring my bell: The JLP leadership contest

A friend asked me the other day whether I would write about Jamaican politics. I answered honestly that I did not feel comfortable doing that, just yet, because I did not believe that I had a good understanding of what was driving the political processes here. Lots of seemingly interesting things  happen with politicians in Jamaica, and I may venture some opinions soon. I mean, my views are my views.

This Sunday sees the culmination of a recent decision by one politician to challenge the leader of his party for that position. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), currently in opposition, will have delegates voting for either Andrew Holness (leader) or Audley Shaw (deputy leader). The ‘race’ has been fought in mainly bitter terms, often with ‘surrogates’ doing much of the deep biting on behalf of their man. From what I have read and heard, little separates the two candidates in terms of policy ideas. Indeed, one of the funnier developments was when Mr. Holness accused Mr. Shaw of ‘stealing his ideas’.

The political cartoonists, especially Clovis, have had a field day depicting the candidates. Mr. Holness is often portrayed as child-like–a friendly interpretation of that would be that it focuses on his relative youth; a less friendly view would be that many of his reactions are somewhat childish–seeming petulance, being one of them. But seeing his as a baby in diapers, or with a bottle in his mouth, or with a pacifier, all tend to put him into the bag as not up to ‘man-like’ performances. Mr. Shaw is often referred to as “man a yaad” (translated as “the man of the house”), meaning he is the one to turn to who can get things done, be tough, rough and mean as befits an attack dog. Being abrasive seems to be more second nature to “Audley”, as he’s affectionately termed.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 6.35.25 AMThe race has been marked by many accusations of wrong-doing, the most recent of which related to the all-important list of delegates. I really did not understand the selection process but it seemed clear that more than a little jiggery pokery had come into play in preparing the list, and head of the JLP Secretariat, Dr Horace Chang, has not come up smelling of roses.

The election will be historic, being the first leadership contest the party has every held. From what I have heard and read, the JLP has done little to endear itself to the general public. Partisans within the party have shown little sign of being swayed by the other side’s arguments. I don’t know if there are really any neutrals when it comes to the contest, and what would make them sway one way or another could be any of many pieces seeming trivia. Holness’ seeming laid-back attitude? Shaw’s in-your-face toughness? Either’s ability or lack of it to engage PM Portia Simpson-Miller.

As a bystander, I have nothing to lose by putting my hat into the ring in trying to pick a winner. My feeling is that Mr. Holness will hold onto his leadership position by a decent margin. He is not as laid back as he’s painted. He’s not as gentle as his opponents want to portray him; he’s quite capable of slyness (and innuendo has been one of the traits I’ve detected when hearing him discuss his opponent, often with a double-edged “I didn’t say that” when his comments are being interpreted.

I think the party will be much damaged by this race and will then be vulnerable in the near-term as the party in power can exploit the obvious internal JLP divisions that the race has unearthed. Enough of my speculation, though. The voters will be casting their ballots and should know the result around 4pm on Sunday. By early evening, we’ll see who has it right.