The PNP's current strategy is politically asymmetrical

Christopher Burns

Sunday, March 04, 2018

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On the face of it, the strategy appears to be a classic skew-whiff folly — everything about it seems asymmetric in design, confusing and politically amateurish. Put simply, the People's National Party (PNP) is pursuing a strategy which, at its best, is tantamount to political miscarriage and, at its worst, is politically incoherent.

The party's leadership seems oblivious to the fact that it faces a political opponent who operates under a closeted version of political modernism. His is the type that appeals not only to Millennials, Generation-Zers, Generation-Xers, but also to tech-savvy Baby Boomers — all creatures of the 'microwave' revolution and 'now' culture.

There is hardly any plausible fluency between the PNP's message, target or short-term objectives. And to make matters worse, there is no sustained articulation of policies, or visible profiling (besides that of Dr Peter Phillips, Julian Robinson and Fitz Jackson), as some PNP shadow Cabinet members have either fallen asleep or have become completely disengaged in ways that place huge wedges of indifferences between the party's mission and the public's interest. Then again, the PNP might just be delaying articulation of its policy framework for tactical reasons.

But, if the PNP is to be taken seriously it must offer a new way forward; one that offers a shared vision for change. Similar to what it has done with its commissions on land, youth, employment and education, the PNP needs to advance a new and attractive value proposition. It must do so in a way that causes people to want to identify with and buy into it. If the party wants to bring change, as it must, then the absolute priority must include designing a political “sprint plan” that consolidates and anchors its vision, capabilities, resources, and mission on an implementable action plan that is capable of producing saleable alternatives. Nothing else will do!

From all appearances, the PNP's strategy is going against the socio-political tailwind. For, with the exception of the upsurge in violent crimes and the recent kerfuffle surrounding the appointment of the chief justice, there aren't really any other galvanising issues around which to foment public anxiety or incite mass protest.

The $700-million non-funding of the voter reverification programme will likely not gain enough public support. On the issue of crime, the PNP cannot sustain harsh criticism of the Government, because crime and violence require national consensus and bipartisanship.

More than any time before, voters are now less likely to tolerate an infusion of political bickering in fighting crime. They are more supportive of a multi-sectoral approach — one that includes Opposition cooperation and not political exploitation. Furthermore, because the PNP president is also a former minister of national security, under whose tenure “Kingfish” was created, he cannot do 'footloose' with the crime situation. The PNP deserves credit, however, for being a responsible Opposition. It has not followed Edward Seaga's model of “oppose, oppose, oppose”, which is quite commendable. The past is prologue, indeed!

Having said that, the PNP could transform its message and strategy to highlight the veneer of economic prosperity being bandied about as prosperity. This requires research and tact because the Andrew Holness-led Administration has not shifted mightily from the economic legacy bequeathed to it by the previous PNP Government.

On the issues of the management of the political economy, the PNP needs to re-evaluate its mission, while simultaneously repositioning itself as the party best suited to help the people realise their dreams. The party's message must be simple, pragmatic, straightforward, and relatable in tone, text and context.

For instance, the economy is not producing thousands of high-paying jobs. There is nothing new about jobless growth (even though economic growth has been anaemic), as this also happened under the previous PNP Government. Our economy continues to produce some low-technology, low-paying jobs, but inflation is at its lowest in many decades. The exchange rate is fairly stable. Consumer and business confidence are high and foreign direct investments are flowing in. Still, there is not enough being done to stimulate aggregate demand (insufficient capital spending) to increase economic growth or stir economic development. Though a mere reflection of its former 1980s self, the International Monetary Fund is in the business of prescribing policies that ensures that beneficiary countries repay their loans.

Consequent on that, the PNP's message should provide alternatives to what currently obtains. Millennials, Generation-Zers, and Generation-Xers should be the ones to deliver these messages as there is a noticeable shift in the demographic profiles and construct of the voting population.

Anywhere the PNP turns “macca juck” them. In a sense, the PNP has become victim of its own success. Too many years in power might have caused the party to develop a severe bout of political jaundice and it could be proving to be too chronic an ailment for body politic.

Fundamentally, though, the party, as well as its leader, appears not to have fully recuperated from the surprised shellacking suffered at the hands of the Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 2016. Sadly, the party is exhibiting signs of being incapable of surviving the brutal political vertigo that defeat caused. Undoubtedly, Comrades will disagree or stoutly reject the fact that the party's leadership, though in Opposition, has not yet grasped the realities of the socio-political and economic Zeitgeists that propelled the JLP into office.

Those political and economic signals are alive. Truth is, the PNP is pursuing a non-strategy, one which is bound to make the surmountable 2016 JLP win likely insurmountable the next time voters go to the polls. Common sense is not so common at all, especially among brilliant men. It is akin to asking people who are destined to get to the “best” to give up the comparative “better” and to settle, instead, for “good”, as though “good” is higher than “better”, even though it is closer to the highest [“best”] prong on the hierarchy. Kind of puzzling, right?

The PNP must use its 'new way forward' proposal to lessen the likelihood of voters exercising the option of voting on the basis of the Fear-Of-Missing-Out. There is no political future for the PNP if all it can do is bemoan the Government at every turn by telling people “it is time to vote them out”. That strategy is quite rich in stupidity. Put aside, at the rate Dr Phillips's throttle of impatience is going, he, and his party, will soon run out of gas.

And since no one in the PNP is brave enough, or willing, to whisper truth to power — in this case, in Phillips's ears — he would forgive me for arrogating that responsibility onto myself. Therefore, I hereby declare, “Dr Phillips, while I understand the 'fierce urgency of now', it is increasingly obvious that you too are desperate for power…” I do not make that declaration lightly. I make it conscious of the need to relieve your fellow compatriots of the albatross of truth that is weighing down on their necks and causing political biliousness.

Consequent on that, and as a first step, Dr Phillips should agree to start taking it easy for a little while, thereby giving his party a respite for recalibration. With every appearance, with every demand, he seems at the edge of bursting a gasket or two. It appears quite odd and idle to be telling everyone “it is time to get rid of this Government…” Mark you, the Government has only been in power for less than two years. From most assessments, the Government has been following almost dutifully the economic script written by the goodly Dr Peter Phillips. The only difference is that the JLP is better at managing capitalism than the PNP is managing democratic socialism. Both require discipline, 'stick-to-it-tiveness' and pragmatism — and one party seems to lack the discipline.

The PNP needs a chance to exhale, especially in the aftermath of the St Mary South Eastern by-election. At all costs, he must avoid trampling on his own ambitions to become that which he seems to believe was preordained. Politics is about timing. It is about preponderance. It is about finding the source of the smoke and getting rid of it before declaring “mission accomplished”.

Without fear of contradiction, Dr Phillips's contribution to the development of the political economy, particularly his involvement in fixing the ramshackle urban transport system, is well documented. While I have criticised him for drinking too much of the “IMF cool-aid”, fairness demand that I also commend him for steering the economic ship between 2011 and 2016. Technocratically speaking, Phillips's reputation as a “doer” remains solidly intact. Those who allow their political narrow-mindedness to handicap their objectivity on this issue will instantly disagree — that is their entitlement. Hardly anyone with as much as a scintilla of political fortitude dare sully Phillips's integrity or remarkable accomplishments.

Yet, the past is prologue. Dr Phillips alone can't fix it. Being a busybody and attempting to force people's hands will only yield limited results. It is an open secret that former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, was boxed into a corner by the rhetoric of fear cast on hyperbolic statements that dire economic conditions were nigh and that only a fresh mandate from the people would guarantee successful implementation of additional International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms. Alas, the economic fearmongering triggered rumblings of the 2016 election — which was way ahead the constitutional due dates. Hints of elections kept rolling off Phillips's tongue with such regularity and authority that many felt it undermined Portia's authority and constitutional remit to call a general election. Essentially, Phillips “called” the 2016 election for her.

The past is prologue. Be careful what you ask for; you may just get it! The country was not ready for the 2016 election. The party was not ready for an election. The head of the executive branch was not ready and was obviously blindsided. All of those cascading circumstances pushed the PNP to mount its worst election campaign. There were no discernible election strategies. There were no reliable enumeration or canvassing data to rely on. Candidate selections were fraught with confusion, acrimony and open warfare, and the party central appeared impotent and incompetent. Comrades were apprehensive about the extent to which the party's “get-out-the-votes” ground game would yield positive results. There were no coherent responses to the JLP $1.5-million 'tax relief' proposal, coupled with the failure to engage the people by way of the national leadership debate, which made the PNP appear completely unelectable.

Dr Phillips, the past is prologue. As a student of political economics and history you should not fall prey to or become that which Marcus Garvey warned about when he addressed the paucity of the knowledge of history. Said he, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Many feel the jockeying for positions and power fights inside the PNP to see who would be next in “Jah-Jah kingdom” were the root causes for the early 2016 General Election. Whether real or imagined, there were heightened feelings among senior Cabinet members, as well as among top-brass party officials, that Simpson Miller's retirement was looming and that she had her own idea of a likely successor, and her list excluded Dr Phillips.

Power is substantially dissimilar to leadership. Those bad experiences that occurred inside the PNP between 2005 and 2016 remain fresh in the minds of many Comrades. Dr Phillips, the past is prologue. You would recall the state of political and economic affairs in Jamaica in 1983. Edward Seaga was prime minister for roughly two and a half years. The world was on the tail end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, the United States led an invasion of Grenada. It was the first major operation conducted by the US military since the Vietnam War. It was a mere 30 months or so after the PNP had suffered a massive defeat (October 1980). The PNP was vehemently opposed to the intervention in Grenada during which Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was overthrown and executed.

Nevertheless, by December 1982 an opinion poll conducted by Dr Carl Stone showed the PNP in the lead. PNP General Secretary and rising star Dr Paul Robertson called on Seaga to resign. Implicit in Paul's call was also a call for a general election to be held. It is not so funny nowadays to juxtapose Edward Seaga's characterisation of Dr Robertson as a “political midget” and a “moral dwarf” against present-day realities, specifically with the obvious changes — political, physical or otherwise — that have occurred. One must always be mindful of the spoken words, lest we dash own feet against a stone.

To cut a long story short, Seaga called the PNP's bluff in November 1983 in what has become known as the “snap election”. Michael Manley kept the PNP out of the 1983 contest on the premise that Seaga had broken a solemn pledge not to contest the next election on the old voters' list. The boycott handed all 60 seats in the House of Representatives to the JLP until 1989. So, why rehash the 1983 snap elections? The reminder confirms that the “past is prologue”. And with Andrew Holness being the protégé of the illustrious Edward Seaga, he could very well be preparing to call Phillips's bluff so he can continue the consolidation of his grip on power by throwing the PNP into tailspin.

Holness is on a mission to make the changes he articulated in those nearly 175 promises made during the run-up to the 2016 election. Andrew knows that the PNP has little or no money to fight a national campaign. What became of the PNP's “crowd-funding” initiative? The JLP is preparing itself. Doubtful Thomases need just watch the early signs and chess plays in Portland Eastern. Study the stealthy moves to institutionalise enumeration gamesmanship in certain constituencies in St Ann, St Catherine, St Andrew, and St James as the JLP moves toward getting a clean sweep of those parishes. Holness knows he has the full support of the private sector — that is without doubt. Holness knows how to use social media and he has a great handle on messaging.

Holness knows the PNP machinery is out of steam. Holness knows he can commandeer government resources to deliver goodies to every nook and cranny of Jamaica in ways the PNP cannot respond in the near term. Holness knows there is no appetite for an election at this psychological moment. All he has to do is to highlight the PNP's thrust as being unreasonable and disruptive. In short, he would make it appear as if all the PNP and Dr Phillips want to do is to derail the “prosperity train”. Holness knows which political levers to pull and leverages to apply in marginal constituencies — his party's enumeration and canvass apparatuses are tactically designed to achieve scale and equally transportable. It is within the context of the existing political environment that the PNP should reframe its strategy or otherwise render itself to another political back-siding




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