Rejection of an out-of-touch, redundant political party

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Rejection of an out-of-touch, redundant political party

Thursday, October 22, 2020

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On September 3, 2020 Jamaicans went to the polls in a general election contest for the 14th time since Independence. At the end of the exercise the results revealed a complete decimation of the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) as the incumbent Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) garnered 49 of the 63 parliamentary seats. The win increased the JLP' s margin from four to 19 seats, giving the governing JLP more than a two-thirds majority in the Lower House.

The JLP win not only exposed the extent to which the PNP had been deteriorating over the years, it also exposed the depths to which the 80-plus-year-old party had fallen in the minds of the broad Jamaican electorate. One could well argue that the party had become a victim of its own repeated electoral successes, and that in the course of that time it had paid little or no attention to the need for change within its ranks or to match with changing national thinking.

According to the pollsters and social scientists, the PNP's strongest support base resides in the 48-68 age cohort of the Jamaican population, most of whom came up in the Michael Manley and P J Patterson political era. However, the largest and most active voting quadrant among Jamaican electorate resides in the 18-46 age cohort — a group that has largely been ignored by the PNP. This group has a completely different approach to politics and, as illustrated by the election results, the PNP has very little appreciation of this fact. To appreciate this, it is worthwhile to look at this PNP election result from a historical perspective.

In February 1989, Jamaicans re-elected the PNP, giving them a 45 to 15-seat majority. Manley by then had shifted from his political rhetoric of the 1970s and was embracing more of a centrist slant as opposed to his previous left of centre political and economic rhetoric. This shift drew the PNP to a closer resemblance with the JLP, but Manley nevertheless maintained a commitment to his pursuit of social justice. Within a few years illness forced his departure, whereupon the party, wittingly or unwittingly, turned harder to the right. In the face of a buoyant global economy, the PNP benefited from a period of positive, stable economic growth. Despite this, the party, instead of continuing with its foundation social justice programmes, opted to pursue the implementation of massive infrastructure development plans which benefited some of the masses, but its biggest beneficiaries were mostly the handful of close party insiders, opening the door to arguments on PNP corruption. That notwithstanding, the party — aided and abetted by a weak and fractious JLP — became an election-winning juggernaut.

As the 1990s came to a close, shifting economic winds saw fissures developing within the PNP's ranks. Add to that there was the 'Finsac' debacle, which transported a developing middle class back into the dark ages, as then Finance Minister Omar Davies' knee-jerk reaction to developments in the financial sector scuttled the savings base of thousands of Jamaicans. His handling of the crisis wiped out a developing middle class and, in effect, turned back Manley's nearly 30-year vision of having more black Jamaicans being involved in the commanding heights of the island's economy. Many Jamaicans never forgave the PNP for this and the party, instead of issuing an apology or expressing contrition, doubled down on defending the decisions taken.

This framed the sociopolitical environment that would ultimately lead to the PNP's electoral demise, first essayed in the 2002 election when the JLP took back 16 of the 50 PNP seats won in 1997. The JLP, in that election, polled 360,718 votes to the PNP's 396,590 votes, gaining 60,000 more votes than they did during their 1997 outing. At the same time, the PNP lost 32,000 of the 429,000 votes they had picked up in the 1997 contest. It was clear to me then that the PNP had begun to lose its electoral grip as it departed further and further from its social justice platform from which it had operated as far back as the 1970s.

By 2004 party leader Patterson had indicated his decision to step down. His departure triggered a scramble for leadership. The delegates eventually elected Portia Simpson Miller to lead over Dr Peter Phillips, Dr Omar Davies, and Dr Karl Blythe. While popular with the electorate, Simpson Miller did not enjoy the confidence of its more lettered, socially established party bigwigs, and thus began the undermining. She squandered a more than 70 per cent likeability rating in the two years of her ascension to then lose to Bruce Golding in 2007. On the heels of this loss Dr Peter Phillips mounted a challenge to her leadership.

Following the party's win in 2011, Hugh Small published a withering critique in the January 13, 2013 edition of The Gleaner attacking her leadership skills while suggesting that she lacked the intellect required to lead the party in the developing political dispensation. According to Small, “The dilemma that the PNP now faced was that in the 75-year history as a party, it was the first time that [it is] being led by someone who does not have the intellectual capacity to carry the whole team along with the leadership.”

The undermining of Simpson Miller continued throughout her 2011-2016 term, Phillips being quoted in a WikiLeaks bombshell about Comrade Leader Simpson Miller being a “disaster” and the distastefulness of serving under her. Phillips's acumen as a technocrat is incontestable, but he had absolutely no ability to lead people, worse, lead a political party built on the back of individual leader popularity. Phillips, though, had visions of Jamaica House embedded in his head. After all, he had done his years of service; it was his turn.

Against this background, it must be remembered that Phillips encouraged Simpson Miller to call an election nearly one year early. The PNP would eventually lose the election in 2016 and she forced to step down in favour of none other than Phillips, who had not yet led the party in a general election but unfortunately, under his stewardship, had lost two by-elections that entailed constituencies the party had won in 2016.

Polls showed that his favourability ratings with the electorate trailed far behind current Prime Minister Andrew Holness, while equally dragging down the party as an alternate to the ruling JLP. The subsequent Peter Bunting challenge to Dr Peter Phillips was a reflection as to the change in party politics in Jamaica. Despite the obvious shifts, the PNP's delegates colluded to retain Phillips to face Holness in any called election contest — a decision that flew in the face of any reasonable thinking. Twice before this the PNP masses had rejected Phillips's courtship of the party's hand in leadership. This time the party's delegates acquiesced and the rest is history.

In an election impacted by a global pandemic and punctuated by the usual low voter turnout, 714,000 Jamaicans voted, or 37 per cent of the 1.9 million registered electors. The JLP, nevertheless, polled 101,000 more votes than the PNP to explode the long-held view that many Jamaicans held of the island being “PNP Country”. The view equally underlined the fact that the JLP's 2016 win was never a fluke as it had done so by overturning an 11-seat majority, albeit with a wafer-thin 3,500-vote majority.

One could not ignore the tragic irony contained in a statement Phillips made to a reporter just before midday on election day 2020 that if he lost the election he would resign not only from the party's leadership, but also from active politics. It was the comment of a man defeated even before he had cast his own vote, and it created a pall of chaos and confusion in the minds of many who had not yet voted. Phillips's announcement laid the foundation for the rot that would be announced later that evening — the overall rejection of an out-of-touch and redundant political organisation. It would create another crisis, leadership, or the lack thereof. The defeat of Peter Bunting, Wykeham McNeill, and a host of the party's big names provides a gaping chasm. In the nights that have followed, dozens of long knives have been drawn among multiple pretenders.

The next five years will be crucial for the PNP's survival as it is now on life support with not only a failing battery, but the electric power needed to charge the battery has been disconnected from the building for non-payment of the long-outstanding bill.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a writer and self-taught artist. He operates Yardabraawd International LLC and shares his time between Lauderhill, Florida, and Kingston, Jamaica. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or richardhblackford@gmail.com.


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