Labour Parties in Jamaica and the Caribbean

 Robert Buddan


 There are about 1,500 political parties around the world. Political parties calling themselves Labour Parties are relatively few in number and tend to be concentrated in the Anglo-Democracies of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the English-speaking Caribbean. The English-speaking Caribbean has the largest concentration of Labour parties to population in the world. In the twelve Independent countries, there are ten Labour parties.

Even the People’s National Party, Jamaica’s first modern party, had initially considered calling itself the Jamaica Labour Party, influenced as it was by the British Labour Party. However, it decided to use the term “National” to reflect the broad alliance of nationalist forces that it aimed to represent.

Sir Alexander had every right to call his party, the Jamaica Labour Party, since he was the pre-eminent labour leader in the country and the Caribbean. The JLP did grow out of the labour movement. At the same time, the association between ‘Busta’ and labour meant that, subliminally, the Jamaica Labour Party was Bustamante’s Party. Once the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union had his name, it followed that the party which came out of that union, named Labour Party, would be understood to be his party. That was typically Busta.

Caribbean Labour parties differ from the European types in being leader-dominant rather than being worker-driven and this reflects itself in their organizations. They also differ in having weakly developed philosophies priding themselves on being practical. Pearnel Charles’ book, A Cry from the Grassroots is a rare Jamaican example of any attempt at developing a vision of a Labour party as a broad alliance of social forces aimed at national development in today’s age. Furthermore, Labour parties are conservative for the standard of Labour parties. Whereas European Labour parties have worked with radical worker’s movements or communist parties, the Caribbean versions have been anti-communist.  

The Rise and Decline of Labour Parties

The Caribbean’s Labour parties came out of the region-wide labour riots of the 1930’s. Labour leaders were generally agitators and not national reformers. It was only after they realized that fundamental changes in legislation and policy were needed to improve the conditions of labour that they formed parties to enter government. In most cases their leaders formed unions before they formed political parties. In many cases, these parties were run as the personal organizations of their pre-eminent leaders like Bustamante himself, Eric Gairy in Grenada and Vere Bird Senior in Antigua and Barbuda. The highpoint of these Labour parties were the 1940’s and 1950’s.

An interesting discovery was made by Donald Peters in his survey of the fortunes of Labour parties in the Eastern Caribbean. He found that between 1950 and 1960, Labour parties won 80% of all elections. But between 1960 and 1970, the number of elections won fell to 68%. Between 1970 and 1980, they won only 56% of elections and in the 1980’s, they won less than 20%.

 This decline arose from many factors. The strong-man, one-man, paternalistic style of leadership gradually lost its appeal as politics shifted from street agitation to parliament and statesmanship. The clearest case was the decline of the Grenada United Labour Party of Eric Gairy whose megalomania resulted in oppression and his overthrow in the 1970’s. In Jamaica, the same style of leadership created a split in the JLP in the 1990’s and at one point a national poll showed that only about 12% of persons would vote for the party. The strongest Labour party of the 1940’s and 1950’s had come close to death.

Another factor was the failure of Labour parties to pursue wider social and economic reforms. They shunted labour issues over to their unions and contained those issues through party and government. Wider issues of race, class, land, education, health and housing for working people were never taken up. It was left to the social-democratic parties of the region to do so. The PNP in Jamaica took the lead in these areas and began to attract more of the support of labour. While Hugh Shearer limited himself to the BITU and industrial relations, Michael Manley took up the political cause of the working class in the 1970’s in broader social, economic and political relations. 

A third factor was the taking over of many Labour parties by the pro-business middle class. Distrusting the socialist ideas of social-democratic parties and failing to win elections through their own parties, the upper business classes entered the Labour parties in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. This was truer and occurred earlier in a country like Jamaica (as against Guyana and the Eastern Caribbean) where the middle class was larger. By 1974, this take-over had been complete with Edward Seaga’s accession to the leadership of the JLP.


The Character of the JLP

The Jamaica Labour Party ceased to be a Labour party a quarter-century ago. The BITU’s association with the JLP appears to be more a hang-over from the past. It has no real influence in the party and JLP election manifestos say little of worth about either labour’s input or labour’s concerns. The term “Labour” in the party’s name is of historical value only, saying where the party came from, not what the party is. Its most active grassroots labourite, Pearnel Charles, wants the party to return to its Bustamante roots. Charles himself, though supported by Shearer and the BITU for a post as Deputy Leader in 2000, was opposed by the current leadership and failed in his bid. The party’s most active and recognizable labourist face, exists on the margin of the party. The JLP has even rejected the new formula for governance where there is a social partnership between the state, private sector and trade unions.

Jamaica’s last national trade union strike was in 1985, directed against the JLP government itself. The country’s premier trade unionist-politicians in the last quarter-century have been Michael Manley and Hugh Shearer, coming either from the PNP or from the JLP’s old guard. In his final days, it was Manley and Shearer who discussed and agreed that work towards worker’s training and employer share-ownership schemes should remain on the agenda for the future. It was Shearer’s slogan, “Built by Labour” that was most popular among the working people in 1980 and which rallied support for the party’s victory. It is Trevor Munroe in the Senate who seems more concerned with labour issues than the JLP Members of Parliament.


The JLP Manifesto

The current JLP Manifesto gives no more space to labour relations than to any other section (Youth, the Elderly, Gender) and you have to wait until pages 169-171 (out of 211 pages) to get to it. In fact, the plan really takes but one page and has nothing new when compared to what the PNP has done or is doing for labour relations. The Manifesto documents are more about Mr. Seaga, business and investment, and attacks on the PNP. The documents do not mention the BITU, the party’s role in Jamaica’s labour history, or a possible social partnership between the state, private sector and trade unions. The main document speaks of social governance and mentions trade unions last among a number of organizations that would be consulted on social issues. The Manifesto confirms that the  JLP has long ceased to be a party of labour. 

For the past ten years, the JLP has neither been about labour nor business for that matter. Its main preoccupation has been with whether Mr. Seaga should be its leader and Mr. Seaga’s main preoccupation has been how to keep control of the party and win elections. Behind these preoccupations have been disputing labour and non-labour factions and within each have been different kinds of reformers. The pro-labour reformers want to broaden the party’s base to involve more grassroots people and their issues in development while the non-labour faction wants to open up the party’s governing bodies to more consensual and a greater plurality of views.

The JLP is trying to modernize but it is still in a stalemate. It is no longer a party of labour and its manifesto does not suggest that it is a party for labour.   

Robert Buddan is a lecturer in the Department of Government, UWI. E-mail: