The decision that Dr Phillips must now make

Monday, April 08, 2019

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In 1944, when the People's National Party (PNP) was brushed aside in the first national elections under universal adult suffrage, the internal cry was “Organize! Organize! Organise!”

They organised with such success that though the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won the 1949 election by 17 seats to the PNP's 13, the latter took the popular vote.

Amazingly, in just five years, PNP popular support grew to such an extent that it polled 203,048 votes in 1949, compared to the Alexander Bustamante-led JLP's 199,538.

Traditionally, organisation at grass roots has been the way of the PNP, using the community-based group structure as its base. The charisma of Mr Michael Manley apart, that capacity was central to the PNP's revival after a near wipe out in 1980.

The 2016 election was one most people expected the PNP to win. In the end, the party lost by just one seat, largely because of questionable judgement calls.

Hurt though the party was by that 2016 election loss, the PNP leadership and think tank would have expected to be back in charge of government within five years, although political observers took note of the slick, innovative approach of the JLP, especially in its use of social media and new communication technologies.

Those organisational skills were again on show in October 2017, when the JLP won the by-election in St Mary South Eastern by more than 900 votes.

That was a marginal seat which the PNP only won after a magisterial recount in 2016. The obvious financial strength of the ruling JLP and State-funded employment projects as the by-election approached gave the PNP comfort as they sought to rationalise that setback.

But post-Portland Eastern last Thursday the PNP has to stop deluding itself. It was a 'safe' PNP seat — qualitatively different from the marginal St Mary South Eastern.

In the normal course of things, money, superior organisation, and even the lengthy presence on the ground of JLP candidate Mrs Ann-Marie Vaz, should not have allowed the overturn of a PNP majority well in excess of 2,000 votes. But that's exactly what happened, plus a winning margin of approximately 306.

Intriguingly, awful corruption scandals leading to the demise of two Cabinet ministers apparently had little or no impact on the electorate in Portland Eastern.

Some say the popular Mr Damion Crawford did well to increase his party's numbers to more than 9,000. But, truthfully, that achievement is inconsequential.

Dr Peter Phillips and the entire PNP leadership need to take a critical look inwards. Can Dr Phillips, at age 69 — exemplary public servant though he has been for many years — viably lead the party into the next general parliamentary election, which very likely will be next year?

It's the question the party and Dr Phillips must answer now.

Dr Phillips needs to move swiftly to roll the wicket for an orderly succession contest. The PNP has a glorious history of reinventing and revitalising itself. The task now is to find and unite behind a leader who can guide the fashioning of a vision to capture the imagination of the electorate – the majority of whom are under 40 and many, if not most of whom, hold no strong party loyalties.

The quicker they can get to it, the better for party and country.

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