Political Leader

Michael Manley entered representational politics in the 1967 general election, winning the Central Kingston constituency. After his father’s retirement, he comfortably won the People’s National Party (PNP) contest for party leadership. He was consequently appointed Leader of the Opposition.

Manley zeroed in on the failings of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration, which had held the reins since independence in 1962. He inveighed against social injustice and inequality, which, he claimed, pervaded Jamaica. While acknowledging significant economic growth in the decade under the JLP Government (1962-72), he contended that the benefits were restricted to a small minority. Too many in the society “face the blank wall of poverty,” he asserted. He attacked the human-rights record of the Administration. He advocated a deepening of democracy, donned bushjacket suits and mobilised reggae artists to write and perform songs that carried his message, “Power for the People”. The People’s National Party (PNP) won thirty-seven of the fifty-three seats in the House of Representatives in the election held on Leap Year Day 1972. Mr Manley was sworn in two days later as Jamaica’s fourth Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Manley

Michael Manley and his Government embarked on the most profound and wide-ranging programme of social and economic reform in Jamaica’s history. Among other legislative measures, they established a national minimum wage, maternity leave with pay, gender equity in pay scales, the right of workers to join trade unions, a land-reform programme, a national literacy programme, free education to tertiary level, a law that ended discrimination against children born out of wedlock, and a National Housing Trust that received statutory contributions from taxpayers, for which they are credited, and dispensed benefits by lottery to contributors in need of housing. An inequitable Masters and Servants Act was repealed, as were laws permitting arbitrary arrest and detention of persons on flimsy grounds of suspicion. The Government vigorously promoted education, cooperative development, child welfare, community health, women’s rights, worker participation, and self-reliance at national and community levels. In promoting self-reliance, Manley often led communities in manual work to provide themselves with social facilities and amenities.

Following the breakdown of negotiations with North American multinational corporations for a more equitable share of the proceeds of Jamaican bauxite (aluminium ore), the Manley Government imposed a bauxite production levy which set alarm bells ringing not only among overseas investors but also within the Jamaican business sector.

There was apprehension too when the PNP in November 1974 reaffirmed its democratic socialist philosophy, first formally adopted in 1940, though clearly signalled from the party’s founding in 1938. Although the November 1974 democratic socialist blueprint included a mixed economy, with a clearly defined role for the private sector, some feared that the Government’s stated intention to control public utilities and other strategically sensitive entities signalled an encroachment of state capitalism into what was previously regarded as private-sector territory.

Despite a concerted attempt at public education to promote the democratic socialist model nationwide, within Manley’s party itself there was a broad spectrum of political ideology ranging from slightly left of centre to near-marxist. Jamaican and foreign investors were rattled by the rhetoric of some of the more radical socialists. Manley’s democratic instincts and reflexes would not allow him to silence his leftwingers as some critics urged, which was itself regarded as further evidence of impending communism.

Flight of capital

With the flight of capital and curtailment of investment, economic conditions in Jamaica deteriorated in the 1970s. Amid accusations of destabilisation by the CIA, the IMF, foreign investors, the US media and elements of the domestic business sector and opposition, politically motivated violence escalated, exacerbating an already problematic situation. Crimes of violence were rampant. In June 1976 Mr Manley, in response to popular demand, declared a state of emergency during which there was some curtailment of civil liberties, including detention of scores of alleged troublemakers. Relative calm returned during the state of emergency. Manley called a general election in December 1976 in which the PNP won 47 seats in the sixty-member House of Representatives. Manley’s detractors subsequently contended that the state of emergency, which lasted for a year, was designed to entrench his Government.

Electoral defeat

Economic conditions continued worsening after the 1976 general election. So also did politically motivated violence. Manley called a general election in October 1980, at which his party was routed, winning only nine of the 60 seats in the House of Representatives.

Within two years, the impeccably accurate Carl Stone polling organisation showed the PNP in a comfortable lead over the JLP. However, the assassination in 1983 of Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s revolutionary Prime Minister, and subsequent involvement of the Jamaican army in the US-led invasion of his island, was followed by a dramatic reversal in the opinion polls. The Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, called a snap general election for December 1983. Claiming that voter registration was overdue and that a high proportion of voters would be disfranchised, Manley led a PNP boycott of the election. The JLP won all sixty seats in the House of Representatives against minor party candidates and independents. The PNP waged its opposition through “people’s forums” all over Jamaica.

Return to power

In February 1989, Manley was swept back into power by 45 seats to the JLP’s 15. However, there was a sea change in his economic policy. Manley conceded that the Government of the 1970s had moved too fast in attempting to cure Jamaica’s social ills, that “despite the many fine programmes for social and human development, the economy contracted and as a result many of the people suffered hardships.” He also admitted to failure of his 1970s Government’s attempt to unite third world countries into “a sort of trade union of the poor of the world… because first world countries had their own agenda as technology led to increasing globalisation of the world economy”. His prescription for facing the new reality was liberalisation of the economy and privatisation of government assets. New-style democratic socialism would “build participatory democracy on the foundation of social justice and the broad ownership of the means of production. Socialism has to be able to adapt to changing times”, he said, “without ever losing its compass – its commitment to empowerment.” After putting the new policy into effect, Mr Manley retired in March 1992, due to ill health.

He subsequently worked as a consultant, journalist, coffee farmer, multi-award-winning horticulturist, and distinguished visiting professor at six universities. He died of prostate cancer on March 6, 1997, and was buried in Jamaica’s National Heroes Park in Kingston. He was survived by his wife Glynne, whom he married in 1992, and five children by previous marriages – Rachel, Joseph, Sarah, Natasha and David.