Arise from the grave of defeat, Comrades, and do so quickly!

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Arise from the grave of defeat, Comrades, and do so quickly!

Christopher Burns

Sunday, September 13, 2020

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Those old enough should remember Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, better known as Baghdad Bob, the unintentionally hilarious Iraqi information minister who — no matter what evidence to the contrary — emphatically predicted evisceration of United States forces during the 2003 Iraq war, and denied any news to the contrary.

People's National Party (PNP) President Dr Peter Phillips outperformed Baghdad Bob forenoon last Thursday, September 3, 2020 — election day — when he consoled Comrades not to worry, because “there will only be tears of joy tonight…” The results did produce an ocean of tears, but induced by the agony of defeat.

It remains unfathomable how the PNP did not see last week's defeat coming. I do not say that lightly, since the writing had been on the wall for almost two years prior, even as the PNP begged for a general election.

The truth is, the PNP entered last week's election with tons of political comorbidities, which included its inability to campaign against its own economic and development policies—policies it bequeathed the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 2016.

Preamble aside, many are asking: Did the PNP rely on hastily implemented technology without sufficient proof of concept in the run-up to the election? Was the canvass data entered correctly in the data bank? Did the PNP suffer another bout of “youthful exuberance” with Philip Paulwell partly in charge of its technology roll-out? Does the party have well-trained and experienced data analysts?

Something went wrong to cause 128,000 PNP supporters to stay home versus 30,000 JLP supporters, or by a ratio of 64:15 – No, sah! That nuh look pretty at all, and it cannot be only COVID-19 related. Who 'colt' the game?

In her assessment of the election results, my friend, Lady C, remarked, “…Burns, the JLP dropped a precision bomb on the PNP which has clearly shattered its immediate ambitions, but hopefully not its resilience...” Like it or not, Lady C is right. For although the PNP got its clock cleaned, it is not the first time the party has tasted defeat only to stage a bigger political comeback.

Therefore, according to her, “…a lot depends on what the PNP chooses to do and how it manages the process of rebuilding. For, in the final analysis, our democracy deserves a strong and purpose-driven parliamentary Opposition. Though in the minority, the PNP's fortune will rest largely on its legislative activism...”

It is true, elections have consequences. As such, and although the allure of “near absolute” power and invincibility might be tempting to the new 48 “governors”, they must be mindful that the distance between Palm Sunday and Crucifixion Friday is short. Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his parliamentary battalion must not make the egregious error of cloaking themselves in green blankets of idolatry of power or take too much comfort in the results of the September 3 parliamentary election. However spectacular and well-deserved, the victory is not impenetrable.

Dispassionately speaking, as big as the 76 per cent JLP seat-count advantage is (48 JLP to 15 PNP), or a 16:5 parliamentary seat ratio, we must pause for collective reflection on voter turnout. The JLP received only 21.3 per cent support from registered voters. The PNP fared worse, with only 16 per cent of registered voters casting a ballot in its favour. Put another way, a combined 78.7 per cent, or 1,505,650 electors, or roughly eight out of 10 registered voters either voted against the JLP or abstained. That is, and ought to be, particularly troubling, because the prime minister and his JLP campaigned on continuity, youth, the future, its achievements, credibility, and, yes, green Clarks shoes. Yet only 21.3 per cent of registered voters bothered to approve Andrew's stewardship and leadership of the political economy.

That, my friends, is a serious indictment on our still emerging democracy. There was nothing new about the low voter turnout last week. That was the second time since 1993 that voter turnout fell below 50 per cent—2016 was the first time it fell below 50 per cent and the only other constant is that Andrew Holness won on both occasions. Why does this level of voter apathy seem so inextricably linked to the youthful and excessively likeable Andrew Holness? Could voters be seeing great distinctions without differences between him and the old political guards, and between the PNP and the JLP? Could this level of apathy give rise to a formidable third party?

Last Sunday I had a quick talk with a young law student from rural Jamaica. When I teasingly asked if he had voted, he said “No, I did not see anything to vote for because, despite all the noise, I really do not see any differences— except youth —between Brogad and Dr Phillips. And, at the party level, I do not see any significant dissimilarities, except desperation and distraction, between the PNP and the JLP…” His assessment of the leaders and parties was incisively refreshing, but equally gloomy.

But, back to the PNP: It has had its fair shot at governance, and for years it enjoyed clear majorities in Parliament. The PNP could have been more effective and transformative during its stewardship. But, alas, nothing last forever. Make no bones about it, never again must any political party take the people for granted. Never again must a political party claim political paternity of an entire country that has never been — and will never become — politically or socially monolithic. Hence, it was quite idle and lavishly foolish for the PNP to misinterpret its winning streak and use it to convince itself that Jamaica is “PNP country”. After all, voters want performance, tangible performance, in their communities — not political stereotyping.

And, as if weaponising its electoral successes against the political psyche of the very people it represented was not bad enough, a majority of PNP Members of Parliament woefully underperformed during their tenure. The PNP refused to listen to the people. It ignored outside opinions that sought to challenge the party's assumptions. The PNP became intellectually bilious, incoherent, and shamefully indifferent toward dissenters. For way too long the PNP carried on as though it was “master of all it surveyed”. Well, as my late Aunt Ivy was wont to say, “Quakoo, Quakoo, kuh little fish.” Now the PNP will have to crawl out of the giant whale's belly of defeat, uncertainty, and dejection.

As it wiggles and buck-shuffles its way out the bowel of the giant whale, the PNP must accept responsibility for its defeat. It has no one, or anything else, to blame except its 82-year-old self. Party-central, which includes the secretariat, must be held accountable and answerable. Collectively, the PNP must accept that, for years, some of its Members of Parliament lacked pragmatism, balance and “valance”, effectiveness, servant-leadership, preferring instead to believe constituents only wanted empty promises and contemptuous sweet talk. For years too many PNP Members of Parliament lacked political equilibrium in project composition and allocation of their constituency development fund (CDF). They now know that, while students welcome the focus on education, their parents also want running water. Wise political leaders know how to weigh opportunities and risks and how to use moral suasion to pull followers along in ways that allow the leader to exercise flexibility without reckless insensitivity.

Lady C's allegorical “precision bombing” reference sent me scrambling for useful analogies to prescribe how the PNP could arise from the grave of defeat. Admittedly, while the PNP's electoral loss is far less severe, my mind harked back to events of August 1945, when the Americans dropped a 16-kilotonne atomic bomb on Hiroshima that killed 140,000 people and reduced the hitherto thriving city to rubble. Yet, even as they struggled to comprehend the horror visited on their homes, businesses, public buildings, and fellow citizens, evidence emerged of remarkable acts of courage and ingenuity.

According to the Hiroshima Peace Institute, “…In the aftermath of the fatal bombing, Hiroshima's resurrection began just hours after. The lights came back on in the Ujina area by mid-August, and around Hiroshima railway station a day or so later. Power was restored to all undamaged households by the end of November 1945. Water pumps were repaired and started working again four days after the bombing. The central telephone exchange bureau was destroyed, and all its employees killed, yet essential equipment was retrieved and repaired, and by the middle of August experimental lines were back in operation…”

Because “humans destroyed Hiroshima and humans rebuilt it”, if there is a strong desire within the PNP to close ranks and rebuild, then rebuilding should begin in earnest and immediately. The rebuilding process must be all-inclusive, transparent, and without back-biting and infighting over leadership positions. There can only be one leader at a time, and his or her imprimatur on the organisation must be swift, obvious, and decisive enough to garner organisational harmony and support to ensure effectiveness. A party divided cannot stand. The party will stumble, but it also must find its way forward.

The PNP must close ranks as quickly as feasible, settle the positions of Opposition leader, party president, general secretary, and communications director, then start candidate selections for the pending parochial elections. The PNP would be wise to go to every constituency on a listening tour — not a preaching tour, not a vengeance tour, not a finger-pointing tour, and not a pious Peter bellyaching tour. The PNP needs to listen keenly to young people, middle-aged people, and older folks. Listening is a sign of respect. The party must engage at the gut level; it must listen to the hearts of the people. The party must bury its unproductive piety and go down in “sackcloth and ashes” and seek absolution for years of constituency neglect and poor representation. If the party actively and sustainably engages young people it would quickly realise that there are many hidden treasures around. The PNP could benefit immensely from the potential discoveries, as not all “GenXers”, Millennials, “GenYers”, or “GenZers” admire or support the JLP or Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

As a first start, the PNP would be well served to devise a 12-point plan, divided into organisational imperatives and the People's Agenda. It should adopt a mandate that focuses on organisational reforms that include a full-scale programme of modernisation, outreach, and a sophisticated human resource recruitment drive. The organisational remit must, of necessity, order a complete renovation of the present secretariat sufficient to link it to the party's various organs and affiliates in a technologically efficient, integrated, human, nimble, and effective way. The organisational imperatives must have a competent general secretary to lead the charge with fixity of focus and dexterity.

In addition to a competent general secretary and an active “go-getter” treasurer, there must be a modern, proactive, visible, and effective public engagement, political relations, and consistent communications apparatus headed by a political journalist and strategist of repute who knows how to grow social media and inspire influencer activation and message amplification.

The entire organisation should be singing from the same hymnal. Mix-messaging, contradictions, and unauthorised speaking and leaking must be outlawed. The listening tour must be followed by purposeful roundtables that welcome eliminations, because not all ideas will be politically, socially, or economically pursuable. The party must determine what it wants to be versus what its supporters want it to represent or become. Commonality of focus will drive the kind of symbiotic and reciprocally beneficial relationships between party-central, followers, potential followers, and the wider public. There must be vertical and horizontal information-sharing between its various organs, affiliates, party-central, and supporters, including, but not limited to, enumeration, canvassing data, and political training. The PNP must give voters something to vote for, as much as a reason to vote against the competition.

The PNP will not advance its cause if it elects to wallow in self-pity or throw up its hands in despair. Neither can the leaders — at all levels — behave like Andrew's Livers Salt, which effervesces on contact with liquid but quickly loses its bubbles. Therefore, the party must be consistent and persistent in pushing and selling a uniformed agenda. Before it pushes an agenda, though, the party must decide on the 12-point action plan and settle on what its priorities, core purpose, and mission are going to be before it goes to market. As part of its programme of engagement, the party must invite and engage academia, private sector, civil society groups, youth, legal fraternity, media, the Church, trade unions, and so on to participate in scrutinising policy proposals, and be willing to adjust in action as feasible. For any of those things to happen the PNP must arise from the grave of defeat and do so quickly!

Christopher Burns is chief finance officer and vice-president of finance for a multinational. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or burnscg@aol.com.


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