The future of the PNP – A look at the party's 7 'sins'

Canute
Thompson

Thursday, June 20, 2019

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In Part 1, published on June 11, 2019, I discussed that the People's National Party's (PNP) popularity has been in decline since 1997, even though it won the elections held that year. I made this argument to highlight the fact that the party which Peter Phillips inherited in 2017 was already an organisation badly in need of repair and renewal.

Now, with the contest on for leadership of the party, the question of Phillips's stewardship as its head for just over two years, in now under the microscope.

I have suggested that whoever wins the leadership contest will have five major tasks, namely:

(1) restoring the image of the PNP as an organised party;

(2) defining a clear, compelling, and attainable vision for Jamaica;

(3) building the profile of the PNP as a transparent and accountable entity;

(4) making the party attractive to youth; and

(5) unifying the party while articulating an inclusive economic development philosophy and a governance ideology which rejects corruption.

As the candidates position themselves for the upcoming contest, their supporters need to consider the factors which might have been responsible for the party's decline in popularity. I submit that there are seven main reasons which might have been responsible for this decline and inherent in these are clues for renewal.

Cyclical popularity

The most obvious factor — for which no one should be blamed — is the principle of the product life cycle. Political parties are brands, and like any brand they lose their appeal and attractiveness over time. When we add to that the imponderables of political fortunes any game can play.

Michael Manley rode the wave of popularity to win the 1972 General Election with 56.36 per cent of the popular vote, winning 37 (or 70 per cent) of the 53 seats in the House of Representatives. In 1976 the PNP won 78 per cent of the seats in the 60-seat House, or 47 seats to the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) 13, and a slight increase in the popular vote to 56.77 per cent. But in 1980, the JLP wiped out the PNP 51:9 seats, winning 58.35 per cent of the popular vote. By 1989 (the 1983 election not contested by the PNP), the JLP was overturned with the PNP winning 45 of the 60 seats.

If this trend holds, the JLP's current wave of popularity will run its course. But there are some lessons which both the PNP now, and the JLP later, may learn, though frankly it is good for any democracy that power changes hands. But the risk is that if the PNP, as the current Opposition, continues to decline, it portends dangers for our democracy.

The lesson here is this: Popularity is fleeting, and polls are about the past and present, so never use popularity as a guide for taking long-term decisions. Be always guided by a clearly defined plan which is constantly being evaluated to assess performance.

Handling scandals

The PNP was not resolute and definitive in dealing with scandals — and for the purposes of what I mean by scandals I am excluding incidents such as the death of premature babies. What happened there were political machinations by the JLP. In addition, more babies have died between 2016 and now than between 2012 and 2016.

But beyond the JLP-orchestrated scandals there were clear cases in which the PNP Government mishandled matters of public governance, and apart from Karl Blythe there was no accountability and the PNP was not forthcoming in placing the relevant facts in the public space.

I am unclear as to what makes Trafigura the scandal it was, such that, despite the Petrojam, used-car, de-bushing, and other scandals, Trafigura is a name that is called more often and, compared to all others, it did not involve funds belonging to the Jamaican taxpayer. Notwithstanding, the PNP's efforts at secret court hearings have only served to legitimise public perception that there is something to hide.

The lesson I see here for the PNP is that it should pledge to be open and transparent in Government and should show the earnestness of its commitment by being open about Trafigura and other such matters now. The Jamaican citizen will one day want a political party that truly eschews corruption.

Myth of “PNP country”

An even bigger blunder the PNP made over several years perhaps since the early 1990s was to assume, as Bobby Pickersgill once said, that Jamaica is “PNP country”. True or not, that mindset would have led to self-satisfaction, conceit, arrogance, and an insufficiency of will to be transparent and accountable.

The fact is that if a person is in a job from which they feel that cannot or will not be fired, then the probability that they will be reckless increases. The PNP misled itself into thinking that Jamaica House was its own place for as long as it wishes.

On of the things the PNP must do is to impose on its consciousness the belief that its chances of gaining and retaining State power require a humble submission to the sovereignty of the people and an ethic of service and accountability mindful that the people are its bosses.

Jamaica is neither PNP nor JLP country, and I hope both parties get this.

Underestimating the “articulate minority”

Aligned to the notion that Jamaica was PNP country was the rejection of opposing voices. I am of the view that the media, upper St Andrew (which largely votes JLP), and civil society have treated the PNP more harshly than they have the JLP. But, notwithstanding, the strategy for dealing with foes must be more calibrated and thoughtful than dealing with friends.

The PNP erred when it underestimated the reach and sting of the “articulate minority”, and thus one of its strategies, if it wishes to regain State power, must be willing and ongoing engagement with the views and voices of its critics.

Stifling the youth

A large part of the decline of the PNP is insufficient renewal of itself. Part of this issue of failure to renew is in the party's inability to attract and give sufficient voice and volume to the voices of youth. An organisation cannot renew itself by relying largely on the old; neither can it navigate choppy waters by relying largely on the young.

I am still puzzled by Raymond Pryce's removal from St Elizabeth North Eastern, and why a seat is not yet found for him. It appeared, on one occasion, that he was slated to succeed Bobby Pickersgill in St Catherine North Western, but that is not the case. I am not sure why there is no clear and public succession plan for a young person to replace the hard-working and six-term Member of Parliament for St Thomas Eastern and party Vice-President Fenton Ferguson.

A slate of recommendations from the PNP Youth Organisation suggests that its members have felt stifled. I trust that the party will look seriously at those recommendations.

Badly managed 2016 campaign

I submit that part of the 'bad taste in the mouth' towards the PNP, and part of its current low popularity, result from a badly handled campaign ahead of the 2016 General Election. The PNP would do itself a great deal of good by confronting the reality of how it made and executed decisions in that campaign.

In the first place the dithering about the date, which should have been 2015, was political amateurism. But that level of dithering was, in my view, the result of a bad misreading of its level of acceptability to the electorate. The PNP seemed to have thought that victory was there for the taking whenever the election was called. And, given that all the polls were showing a PNP lead, there was the perverse miscalculation that these polls were a story of the future rather than a snapshot it time.

Added to this was the miscalculation about debating, the impact of the Holness mansion storyline, General Secretary Paul Burke's folly, and the belief that the PNP had several JLP strongholds under “pressah”, even when work was not being done in those constituencies.

The truth is, the election could easily have gone either way. If the results in St Andrew Eastern, for example, where Fayval Williams defeated Andre Hylton by 161 votes, had gone the other way, and all the other seats remained, the PNP would have won. I understand that a breakdown in the transporting electors affected Hylton. If those reports are true, the picture emerges that at both the national and constituency levels there were management failures.

Amateurish techno/social media wars

A final reason the PNP has lost its subscribership is that within the last 10 years, since social media became a tool of communication, it has not developed a strong presence across the various platforms. Modern political warfare cannot be successfully fought without having a large band of social media friends. The leadership of the PNP does not seem to get this truth.

The bottom line is that if the PNP is to return to be a viable and attractive party, capable of defending and preserving the country's democracy and providing leadership towards a better society, it must learn from its errors and address the current deficiencies in the areas mentioned above.

The PNP must acknowledge and repudiate past errors in handling corruption and taking resolute steps to ensure that its candidate selection processes and all areas of its operation as an organization, going forward, display zero tolerance to corruption.

The leadership will have to be candid and courageous in facing up to itself and doing the tough right things.

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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