London’s lesson from Jamaica: don’t write off your candidate

by Conrad Landin

While Britain slept off its Christmas excess, Jamaica went to the polls on 29 December. Overnight, result after progressive result rolled in as the votes were counted.

The scale of victory for the People’s National Party (PNP), the main left-wing grouping, was a surprise. Poll after poll in the last weeks had shown the election on a knife-edge, with most showing the governing right-wingers slightly ahead.

In the event, it was a contest of policies and records. Poverty had skyrocketed under the incumbents, who also faced negative publicity from their connections with Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, the drug dealer who made global headlines last year when the island’s government refused to extradite him to the US.

But behind all this lies a remarkable woman: Portia Simpson-Miller. Despite her youthful appearance and manner, she has been on the country’s political scene for the best part of three and a half decades, entering parliament seven years before Tony Blair first graced the green benches.

Simpson-Miller first reached the top of the greasy pole in 2006, only to lose the next year’s election to Bruce Golding and the deceptively-named Jamaica Labour Party.

In that year’s election, and this year’s, her opponents sought to destabilise her campaign with a series of vicious, but undoubtedly strong, personal attacks. One tactic used repeatedly was paid TV advertising, in which they attempted to portray her as incompetent and overly aggressive.

Most famously, in both elections they aired footage of a campaign rally in 2002, where Simpson-Miller shook her head from side to side and exclaimed: “Don’t draw my tongue! And don’t mess with this girl! Because I not fraid a no man, no girl, nowhere!”

In 2007, she had faced a leadership challenge where her opponent had called on her to apologise for this outburst. She refused.

I remember talking to a Jamaican friend several years ago about the PNP leader. Though a left-winger, he said that he considered Simpson-Miller’s JLP successor, Bruce Golding, to be more articulate and a better representative for the nation abroad.

He probably partially meant that he was not prone to speak his mind in such a way. I’ve always felt good about politicians pumping emotion into their rhetoric – for me, this was perhaps Michael Ignatieff’s most appealing factor in the recent Canadian elections. But maybe that’s just me – we all remember Reeta Chakrabarti’s squiggly lines plummeting when Gordon and Dave went for each other.

Yet it was probably this quality in Simpson-Miller which allowed her to break history and speak in favour of gay rights at a TV hustings, when her opponent, then-PM (albeit for a few short months) Andrew Holness gave a non-answer. This was a brave move. In the words of Dionne Jackson-Miller, Jamaica’s Jeremy Paxman, when prompting the question: “Jamaica has an international reputation for homophobia”.

Only four months on from the Jamaican poll will come the London mayoral contest, in an electorate three times the size. The Labour candidate in which contest is another political veteran who has never been afraid to say what’s in his head: Ken Livingstone

Some say Livingstone’s musings have alienated voters, and that unfortunately in politics, bland statements are preferable. Time and time again, spectators, unfortunately including some from within Labour, have said he is too old to be voted back in. Both Livingstone and the newly-returned-to-office Simpson-Miller were born in 1945. We also hear that having been voted out once, he could never win again.

These are more the words of pessimistic nay-sayers who would love to say “I told you so” than bitter opponents. They forget that as Labour supporters, talking down the campaign is irresponsible.

I won’t pretend there are many similarities between the political landscapes of Kingston and Kingston-upon-Thames. But if there is one lesson from Jamaica, it’s that in a tough challenge against incumbents, you should never write off your candidate, and that age, previous defeat, bold policies and even extreme statements needn’t be disadvantages.

If Livingstone can build on the success of the “Ken’s Fare Deal” campaign and, like Simpson Miller, effectively challenge the record of the incumbent, there’s every chance he could still emerge victorious in May.

Conrad Landin blogs here.

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One Response to “London’s lesson from Jamaica: don’t write off your candidate”

  1. swatantra says:

    I doubt very much whether its a question of:Where Kingston leads London follows.
    The fact is Ken has had his day and is the wrong man at the wrong time. London Labour could and should have come up with a much better candidate. There is a time limit on every politicin and Ke should have had the sense to realise it and not put his name forward. Its an egotrip and wants to get one over Boris. The casualty wil be Labour unfortunately and 4 more years of Boris regretably.
    Portia Simpson Miller made a good point about Jamica ditching the Queen as its titular head. I think they’ve already ditched the Privy Council and Law Lords.

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