The 2020 General Election and the future of the PNP

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The 2020 General Election and the future of the PNP

Canute
Thompson

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

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Let me again congratulate the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) for a decisive victory at the 2020 polls. The people have spoken, and their sovereign decision is sealed until they are again asked to speak on the issue of who should rule over them.

In some of my writings on the 2016 election I insisted, contrary to the analysis of others, that that election was not close, despite a 32:31 result, as the People's National Party (PNP) lost 11 seats to the JLP. In 2020, with the PNP entering with 29 seats, it lost a majority of that ending up with 14. That number could go up or down marginally after recounts.

I accept that the party which I supported has been defeated, but I stand by my vote.

The PNP was here in 1980 and still possesses the institutional knowledge of how to come back better from a defeat. It did so in the dress rehearsal of the 1986 Local Government Elections, after not contesting the snap general election of 1983. Despite using up the full constitutional time beyond December 1988, the JLP could not hold off the PNP, which defeated it in February 1989 and went on to win four consecutive terms. The lesson here is that defeat need not be the last chapter.

I have an enduring regard and deep respect for Peter Phillips. When I joined the PNP as its Policy Commission chair in 2019 I did so fully aware that the party was facing a series crisis and needed to rebuild and rebrand. I committed my utmost. Prior to that I offered my criticisms and counsel to the PNP privately, and publicly beyond the arena of policy. Clearly the rebuilding process has not got underway in as sustained a manner and, as other analysts have shown, divisions and jostling for power within the party have contributed to the weakening of its electoral machinery. A lot of work is ahead of us.

My support for the PNP is based on its philosophy of people empowerment and the promotion of equity and shared wealth. The legislative and socio-economic reforms of the PNP during the 1970s, many of which now define the Jamaican political and social system, drew me to the PNP. The future relevance of the PNP will be found in its ability to repurpose, repackage, rearticulate and update those legislative and socio-economic policies to respond to the challenges of the current age. One urgent area for attention will be defining who we are as a nation and the values we hold as critical to sustainable development.

Message to the PNP

In several articles dating back to 2016, and continuing through to 2020, I, as a supporter of the party, criticised the PNP and made suggestions about how to redirect itself. In September 2016 I wrote, “The PNP does not get it,” and invited it to ponder the results of the 2016 defeat. In August 2017 I asked, 'Whither the PNP and visionary leadership?', while in June 2019, in a two-part series, I examined 'The future of the PNP and its 7 sins'. Earlier this year I challenged the PNP (and the JLP) to work harder at 'Advancing the anti-corruption agenda'.

Many analysts have offered their assessments of what the 2020 election results mean for the PNP. These range from the unattractiveness of the president to disorganisation at the constituency level, divisions and indiscipline within the party, poor messaging, and party operatives being out of touch with constituents and taking them for granted. The sum of these weaknesses has been that the party has failed to attract new voters and, since 2011, despite a victory that year, has not been effective in enumerating new voters.

But the challenges of the PNP are not of recent times, and as I argued previously, when Peter Phillips assumed leadership of the PNP in 2017, the party was already in steep decline. Let's look at data again.

The table shows that, with an increased electorate between 1993 and 1997, the PNP's share of the popular voted fell from almost 60 per cent to about 56 per cent, and two less seats, moving from 52 to 50. But in 2002 it recorded a loss of over 33,000 votes, compared to 1997, while the JLP increased its share of the votes by over 63,000, and its seat count by over 150 per cent, moving from 10 to 26. The pattern of the PNP's decline in its share of the popular vote continued in 2007 when it lost, although marginally. In 2016, the year before Peter Phillips became president, the party's share of the popular vote decreased by about 31,000.

The data further show that, while the PNP was declining (before the Phillips era), the JLP was growing its base (before the Andrew Holness era), with 34,000 more electors between 1993 and 1997, 63,000 more between 1997 and 2002, and 50,000 more between 2002 and 2007.

The conclusion from this, where the PNP is concerned, is that it is the PNP which has had a problem, not just its leader, and laying the blame at the feet of Phillips when the decline well preceded him is an unbalanced analysis. Without a doubt, however, Phillips must be held responsible for what he did during his short time at the wicket.

I also contend that the challenge of Peter Bunting did not create divisions within the PNP, it exposed those divisions. With the decline having set in since 1997, Bunting's challenge could not have been a major cause of what occurred in 2020. The PNP took its eye off the declining numbers since 1997 and allowed successive wins to blind it to its internal weaknesses. If in 2002 when the PNP lost St Ann North Eastern in that “wake-up call” by-election, that did not send the message; and if 2016 did not, 2020 must.

I was mindful of these issues facing the PNP when I accepted the invitation to lead the Policy Commission. The commission's role was to assemble a set of policy options that would inform a new PNP Administration. In a subsequent piece I will discuss the thinking around the main policy options we proposed as were contained in the election manifesto.

The way forward

There are eight steps which I suggest the PNP takes in seeking to rebuild:

(1) Establish the profile of the person it wishes to occupy the office of president and Opposition leader and define these by way of a job description.

(2) Be strategic and creative in selecting the new leader of the party. While mindful that a transitional period may be necessary, the party in thinking beyond the transitional period must abandon notions of people paying their dues in order to rise to the next level, as well as who has held leadership aspirations for some time and thus may presume they are entitled to lead.

(3) In pursuit of (2) the party needs to conduct a rigorous analysis of who is the likely best leader for the future and, using scientific data to inform its analysis, seek to coalesce around that person. This will require guts and grace from those who would have aspired but who are not found to be the 'best' candidate. Such individuals will need to abandon their leadership ambitions for at least five years and throw all they have behind the selected candidate unless there are failures to meet the standards of the job description.

(4) Rebuild relationships at the constituency level. The steady and precipitous decline in party support is arguably mostly the result of lousy leadership at the constituency level. Candidates and Members of Parliament have not invested time and energy in 'pastoral care' of constituents and supporters, many of whom feel neglected and disrespected. There is a lot of resentment out there. In addition, the party must review its candidate selection and preparation processes. While some good candidates may come parachuted in, the process of building is best from the ground up, thus having aspiring candidates starting at the parish council level and learning the rudiments of organising and building a political base are helpful.

(5) Engage in massive outreach among youth: The PNP must reactivate cells and groups on university campuses and in local communities among youth groups.

(6) Strengthen use of technology: The PNP has been at best amateur in its use of social media and other forms of technology. While there has been some improvement in recent times there needs to be a systemic change.

(7) Stick with reliable data: In the 2020 election, the PNP had data which were contrary to other polling data and which led it to believe that it was likely to win some seats it lost badly. This we cannot ever again cause to happen.

(8) Be a vibrant Opposition and alternative voice of reason and reasonableness. The PNP must not be lulled into thinking that being a conscript of the Government, or being silenced into towing line because of its slim numbers are acceptable. It must stand up to the Government when the situations demand, while being willing to support when the circumstances require. This exercise will require that it remains in touch with the expectations and needs of the country, provides leadership through conversation and engagement, and relies on data. The messaging of the PNP will have to be in both critiquing what the Government does and holding it accountable, while offering a clear, informed, and compelling alternative vision of a better society.

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as a senior lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of six books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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