PNP united in division

GARFIELD HIGGINS

Sunday, November 10, 2019

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It is all the same to a stone whether you touch it or squeeze it. — Somali proverb, Somalia

 

The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of my favourite novels by English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. Michael Henchard is the book's protagonist. Henchard blames his troubles on malignant forces which he believes are devoted to human desolation. Hardy, reminds the reader, however, that Henchard's “unruly volcanic stuff”, his disposition, personality if you wish, has a lot to do with his failures, notwithstanding the weight/influences of his wife, child, and the people of Casterbridge.

In a metaphorical sense, Dr Peter Phillips, leader of the Opposition and president of the People's National Party (PNP), has a political approach which reminds me of Henchard's penchant for blaming all, but the man in the mirror. It is not the media, the voters, or the political right, Dr Phillips, it is you who continue to dig your own political hole with an uncanny rapidity.

The harbinger is conspicuous. After nearly three years, Phillips has failed to gain significant political traction especially among the youth. Credible polls have said so repeatedly.

 

The Big Five

The PNP is on a trajectory to defeat. I believe there are five major reasons for Dr Phillips's failure to gain significant positive political traction, especially among younger voters, approaching three years at the political helm of the PNP.

 

1. The Messenger

Dr Peter Phillips like Henchard does not have a very sunny persona. To me, he comes across as uncongenial, featureless, and too often adversarial. Politics is a matter of the heart, before it is a matter of the head, emotion precedes reason.

Man is a social animal, so I doubt that reality will change any time soon. If folks don't like you, invariably they will not gravitate to your appeals for their support.

Lord Roy Hattersley, Labour Member of Parliament, 1964-97, once said of former one-term British Prime Minister Edward Heath, he had a “bland and pompous manner, something near impossible to achieve, yet Heath managed it”. As was the case with Edward Heath, Phillips is seen as imperious, even to many among the inner circles of his own party.

During my three visits to Portland Eastern to gather information on how the good folks intended to vote in the by-election on April 4, 2019, I picked up a strong current of dislike and distrust of Dr Phillips, and I noted as much in this space.

I said among other things: “I picked up that the disrespect that was meted out to former president of the PNP and Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller during the twice-failed bid of Dr Phillips to lead the party has left a sour taste in the mouths of many a Comrade in Portland Eastern.”( Jamaica Observer, April 7, 2019)

During my road trips into 10 parishes this year, as indicated last week, I again picked up strong currents of dislike and distrust for Dr Phillips, even among PNP supporters.

I hear that Dr Phillips can be a very jovial and down-to-earth in one-on-one and small, closed group settings. The same was true of Heath and Henchard. Via political osmosis or diffusion, Dr Phillips needs to sell that side of his personality to Jamaica.

Another current I picked up during my recent road trips was a feeling among folks that Phillips had an air of entitlement, that he wanted to be prime minister as a sort of long service reward.

Recall that Phillips has been active in the PNP since 1989 and has held various high-profile positions in that party. He contested for the post of PNP president on two occasions. The first was in 2006 when he was among four candidates who sought to replace the retiring P J Patterson. Along with the other two, he was defeated by Portia Simpson Miller. In 2008, Phillips again challenged Simpson Miller for the presidency and was again defeated.

Given this bit of history and the specific circumstances in which these events took place some will doubtless shout “vaulting ambition” (Shakespeare's Macbeth). I can't say, I will tell them to “kibba dem mout” (be quiet).

Every successful political campaign needs a firm narrative architecture. That is campaign strategy 101. Folks want to hear a story that registers with them, their hopes, and dreams.

Who is Peter David Phillips? Note the question is not 'Who is Dr Peter David Phillips?' Phillips needs to authentically introduce himself to Jamaica if he intends to begin to surmount his persona hurdle.

 

2. Message dilemma

I think there is a factory fault with the PNP's message. They need to recall it. Last April, I wrote in this space: “Nearly a year ago, I emphatically said that the PNP's communication/political strategy was a dud. In my The Agenda piece on April 15, 2018, I wrote, among other things: 'The PNP's 'strategy' of 'say something, anything, about everything' is another rusty nail in the party's political coffin.” ( Jamaica Observer, April 7, 2019)

Months away from our 18th parliamentary election the PNP still does not have a message which resonates with the general population. Even political neophytes know that a flawed message and flawed messenger are double-edged swords against the chances of a political party acquiring State power.

Message, momentum and money are the three critical pillars of political campaigns. One does not need to light a lamp to see that the PNP is woefully short on each of these at present.

The clock is ticking. Simply promising trailer loads of free stuff will not take the PNP back to Jamaica House. Folks know that 'three-card trick', and they know the sleight of hand narrative of the PNP confederates in sections of the media and some institutions of higher education.

To date, the principal tools of the PNP's message and approach spew fake news, misguided bluster, empty chat, political deflection, 'bad mind', threats of street demonstrations, and attempts at filibuster. In the 70s, these political methods were effective, not so in the Information Age when there is growing widespread access to the Internet.

Folks want hope that they can realistically believe. They want to see the operational specifics of the PNP's plans. How will the PNP pay for all the free stuff which they are promising to flood the country? And where is the production base to support their promises of mass giveaways?

The days of free education, free land, free house, free salt fish, free sugar, free cornmeal, and free rice will not reverberate with the voters of today because they know that there is no free lunch anywhere. In fact, we are still paying for the economic and political tomfoolery of 'free stuff'.

 

3. Divisions in the ranks

Only the politically uninitiated would not have noticed that Dr Phillips's 'Duh Road' campaign is a OnePNP jaunt.

The Rise United crew has all but abandoned this excursion. It is not difficult to see why.

They have mostly been relegated to the periphery of the Opposition benches in Parliament and the choicest shadow spokesperson assignments have been parcelled out to the acolytes of Dr Phillips.

 

4. Missed opportunities

As with many other spheres of engagement, in politics you seldom get a second chance to make a first impression. Dr Phillips did not only got a second, he got a third chance.

In his victory speech, Phillips said, among other things: “This is not a time to celebrate and to leave out the others in the party. We must come together. We must work together. But we must work together as one. And we must work together with discipline, discipline and manners towards each other.”

I believe, Dr Phillips wasted a golden opportunity to gain some much-needed political points at this key temperature-setting moment.

Firstly, members of the OnePNP squad hogged the victory platform.

Secondly, Phillips did not invite Bunting to join him on the stage. This missed opportunity signalled the direction in which Peter Phillips's PNP was headed. The irony is that Phillips's victory message centred on party unity. The conspicuous physical distancing between Bunting's and Phillips's camps on the platform at the 81st annual conference of the PNP confirmed damaged relationships. Bunting and his team sat at the far right of the platform in the National Arena and Phillips's team occupied the far left. Dr Phillips touted party unity at the annual conference, but the actions of his chief lieutenants trumpeted growing disunity.

Julian Robinson, the PNP's general secretary, said on TVJ's 7 o'clock news that the public should not make too much about how members of his party's leadership were seated on the platform. He would certainly want us to believe that it was mere coincidence that Dr Dayton Campbell, Mark Golding, Ian Hayles, and most of Bunting's crew sat to the far right of the platform?

Also, at the PNP's post-annual conference press event there was no member of the Rise United faction. Dr Phillips, president of the PNP, was flanked by Dr Wykeham McNeill, Fitz Jackson, Mikael Phillips, and Phillip Paulwell, all adherents of the OnePNP outfit. There was no Peter Bunting, no Mark Golding, no Dr Fenton Ferguson, etc, anywhere in sight. All well-thinking Jamaicans want to see a strong Opposition. We do not want the continuation of fractiousness and factionalism in its ranks. The PNP is evidently still united in division.

Elections have consequences, some will doubtless say. I agree, and staying in Opposition has even greater consequences for political parties whose raison d'être is the acquisition of State power. Norman Manley's party is split right down the middle. Folks seldom elect divided parties to form the Administration. The logic is straightforward: If you cannot even govern your own house, how can you possibly properly manage the affairs of an entire country?

The birds, those ubiquitous Black-Bellied Plovers, John Chewits and Bananaquits, shriek that the PNP is planning to have Peter Bunting and his team campaign in Manchester, St Elizabeth, St James, Trelawny, Hanover, and Westmoreland, while Dr Phillips and his outfit will criss-cross Kingston, St Andrew, St Mary, St Thomas, Portland, Clarendon, St Catherine, and St Ann.

Given the limited inclusion of Rise United members in Phillips's shadow Cabinet, and its almost non-inclusion in the 'Duh Road' outings, one can only wonder at the level of energy they will pump into the 'elect Peter Phillips as Jamaica's prime minister campaign'.

Peter Bunting, Member of Parliament for Manchester Central, among others, has publicly stated that he does not believe that Dr Phillips can lead the PNP back to Jamaica House. How will Bunting hold a straight face when he is forced to say the opposite next year on the political hustings?

Based on expenditure on the 2016 General Election and the St Mary South Eastern and Portland Eastern by-elections, I believe the JLP and the PNP will need at least $5 billion apiece to fuel their upcoming general election campaigns. I wonder if Bunting will be sufficiently enthused to break open his considerable war chest of riches and become the veritable ATM for the PNP? If, yes, what guarantees will he need to do such a thing.

 

5. The Napoleon factor

Steve Forbes ( Forbes Magazine), in an article on November 8, 2012 entitled 'The Five Reasons Why Romney Lost', noted, inter alia: “Napoleon once observed that one of the key attributes in judging a general was whether the man possessed a lucky streak.”

Dr Phillips, some would argue, was seemingly born under an unlucky political star — like Michael Henchard. I suspect there might be some merit to that belief. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said, “In politics, you create your own luck.” I support that view.

 

Visa woes

Last Friday was like recess at primary school for many on social media. Why? It was announced that the visa of Daryl Vaz, the minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation with responsibility for land, environment, climate change and investment, had been revoked by the United States Embassy.

Even some of those who swear on their dead mothers' graves that they are objective, civil society proponents were in a state of ecstasy. Some whose 'navel string' (umbilical cord) is buried at 89 Old Hope Road started to shout, “Oil the guillotine and chop off his head!”

Then a few hours after, news flash: 'Phillip Paulwell's US visa also revoked'. ( Jamaica Observer, November 1, 2019)

The voices that were jubilant to hear about Vaz's visa revocation went silent. And some JLP supporters returned the favour. Some have criticised the behaviour of JLP and PNP affiliates on social media as “disgusting and reprehensible”. To those people, I say, rejoicing when a political opponent slips on a banana peel is not unique to Jamaica.

I don't approve of it, but it's just reality. So, get over it! Politics is a combat sport.

And, please note, I am not here giving any consideration to those who slander people. For them, social media is a broken toilet, and they enjoy clawing their way to the bottom.

US secretary of State in the administrations of presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, said: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” I believe that utterance might well figure prominently in discussions in the days ahead.

 

Rural development

I am grateful for the scores of responses via e-mail, social media, and telephone calls which I have received in relation to my calls for urgent focus on agriculture, fisheries and rural development. I am heartened that so many good folks are paying attention. I will be delivering more on the matter of rural development and related issues in the coming weeks.

 

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.


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