Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Unfair to blame Peter for PNP’s loss

Published:Sunday | March 13, 2016 | 3:00 AM
A stony-faced Dr Peter Phillips (left) with Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller and other members of the PNP preparing to take their seats on the opposition benches in Gordon House last Thursday.

One of the most painful consequences of an election loss is the almost total divestment of power. The second and most destructive is the finger-pointing.

Not many in the public are aware that just as how PNP and JLP engage in oftentimes bitter contests, there is in each party, internal divisions, especially where it is sensed that a leadership transition is imminent.

Going into the most recent election, the PNP was the more prone in that connection, as it was thought that PNP President Portia Simpson Miller was on her way out.

In trying to piece together reasons as to why the much-vaunted organisational capabilities of the PNP fell flat, I spoke with individuals inside the party who all shared a common disposition. The willingness to talk but unwillingness to have their names attached to what they said.

In recalling that it was then campaign manager Dr Peter Phillips, minister of finance, who first mooted the idea of early election, one insider said: "Phillips felt that the PNP would have been better able to win an election on the old list. The political side of him was even more motivated by the state of the Opposition JLP.

"The JLP was fragmented, lacked private sector support, had little funding. He also believed that the successes of the Government in every facet of the macroeconomic measure was sufficient to give the PNP at least 35 to 36 seats to retain the Government."

"Reasonable," I said. "So, what happened?"

"There were those led by the pro-Paulwell supporters, some vice-presidents and other key Portia palace guards who felt that Peter was doing this to win the election and then force an early transition from her to him as prime minister soon after that victory.

"They felt he had to be stopped. And so when the prime minister announced that she would be going on the new list to give franchise to 30,000 new electors, an effective 'stop Peter Phillips' faction was formed."

I then asked: "So you are saying that the main reason for wanting a December election was the poor political readiness of the JLP?"

"Yes."

I also asked a Paulwell supporter what would have been the general thinking of his side at the time.

"We were of the view that the PNP could ride all the way to August 2016. The macro picture was positive and, in any case, the PNP would be foolish to call an election if it is not at least seven points ahead."

According to another supporting Peter Phillips, "At that stage, a crazy thing happened. From then on, the leadership of the campaign changed decisively, and a group including palace guards and the pro-Paulwell faction were able to convince the PM to run parallel campaigns from Jamaica House and Vale Royal.

"While Phillips and well-known PNP master strategists and others continued to meet faithfully to run a campaign from the PNP HQ, the real centre had switched. Candidates and campaign managers were called to Vale Royal on occasions, where they received resources and instructions, and general directives regarding ads, the party leader's schedule, and the focus of the campaign was now being led decisively from that centre."

 

Fragmented PNP

 

 

campaign after December

 

Many pundits knew something was wrong in the internal structures of the PNP with some of my JLP friends, with intelligence operatives inside the PNP, even suggesting at the time that the old wounds of the internal battle of 2008 had returned as the secretariat fell down and the PNP became a divided bunch.

"Phillips was never really in charge of the campaign, and he was campaign manager in name only once he failed to secure the December election. What was happening was that the central campaign had no resources and Vale Royal became the focal point.

"One sensed that the PM was being pushed and pulled in all directions and she was just going with who could carry the moment."

I had sensed that in the recent campaign the PNP had made a not so subtle switch from its only platform-positive macro numbers, to making the election about Portia, already once proven in 2007 to be no guarantee as an election winner.

With Portia's political capital much less in 2016, the last thing the PNP needed was a divided party, as picked up by polls and a divided campaign.

"So how was the PNP funded?" I asked.

"It is my understanding that a question needs to be asked if the PNP received funds from external sources, which could have involved a friendly oil-exporting country."

"Do you have any evidence of that?" I asked. He said that many candidates were well funded and that it is a question worth asking.

"The thing of it is that South West St Ann, Eastern St Andrew and North East St Catherine did not get the same level of funding as other constituencies which were lost. These were lost by just over 100 votes each. Had the PNP won those, it would be the Government today.'

While I know it would be natural for someone like Phillip Paulwell to position himself and make his leadership ambitions well known, public sentiment has cooled towards him while the aura of Peter Phillips had grown as he was seen as the minister personally steering the economic ship to safer waters. Polls supported Phillips as the next PNP leader.

It would, therefore, be politically strange if jockeying for leadership positions did not intersect with the political campaign as Portia exposed considerable weaknesses.

One of the crucial fault lines of the then prime minister was her failure to debate where she knew that big bouncers like the dead babies scandal, the bad gas saga, chik-V fiasco, buggery act, etc, would be hurled at her at fiery pace. She was plainly afraid, and any future leader of the PNP would have as his main objective the return of an intellectual centre to PNP thought and direction.

For the future of the PNP, Portia should step back I asked my PNP insider friend why did Phillips bring up the matter of Holness' house when it was plain to see in the polls that it did not harm the Opposition leader.

 

NOTHING TO HIDE

 

"I believe Peter saw it as legitimate, especially as he was unafraid of any personal blowback. Basically, Phillips had nothing to hide so he asked questions he thought to be legitimate."

That answer raised other issues for me.

"I was very puzzled by that, even though I agree that it is better to ask questions than to assume the best outcome, especially where it concerns political leaders. I notice, however, that it was dropped by the secretariat," I said.

"Well, it would seem that there are enough big-house construction to share in the ranks of both political parties so it died out of common concern."

Going forward, the PNP has a lot to recover from. In measuring the performance of various ministers in the last administration, at all levels, Peter Phillips scores highly. Don't take my word for it. The opinion polls bear this out.

With just a one-seat advantage, the JLP has the PNP to thank for running what former Prime Minister Bruce Golding called the worst campaign he had ever seen. Certainly, the fragmentation was quite obvious even if we did not have all the details.

Cohesion is urgently needed in the Opposition PNP for fighting on two fronts, that of being a government-in-waiting and waging political battle against the JLP. As it is now, the PNP will take some time to return to its centre and become once again a viable contender.

In the meantime, it needs to reconcile the duality of leadership ambitions if it wants to stave off an almost certain blowout when the local government election is called.

Some hard questions need to be asked. Is Portia Simpson Miller the loser in 2007, the winner in 2011, and loser again in 2016 capable of finding another winning formula a few years down the road and, should she believe that, how would it impact the objectives of those now champing at the leadership bit?

As it heads to defeat at the next election, the PNP has the luxury of believing that it may not need to do much to retain government at the next general election. Excepting to heal both ends.

It seems to me that Simpson Miller is a spent force in the PNP and if those around her are honest with themselves, they will admit that she did not bring the needed intellectual leadership that the party has to posses if it is to tackle new issues of governance in the 21st century.

It's not entirely her decision at this point, because another of the consequences of losing twice is the emboldening of those seeking her post.

With fairly attractive macro-economic numbers to its credit, the PNP did not have the sort of effective leadership to sell that platform to the man and woman at street level.

The person best suited to lead the PNP through this troubling transition is staring us all in the face.

- Mark Wignall is a political analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and observemark@gmail.com.