The brand image of 'the people's party'
With its defeat at the 2016 polls, the time is apt for the People's National Party (PNP) to review and revise its approach, not just to electioneering, but also to governance. The current dilemma confronting political organisations large and small is how to remake themselves and remain relevant in changing times. For the PNP to do this, it has to be extremely concerned with its image perception and brand quality among the voting public, and more so among those not convinced of its legitimacy. The failure or success of any political party is increasingly tied to its brand quality - how it positions itself in the electoral marketplace; how it is seen and perceived by voters; and the quality of its leadership and policies.
The key elements of a political party brand - the party, its leader and key policies - are highly interrelated in the minds and memories of voters. The credibility and personality of its leaders and the party's perceived integrity and credibility in fulfilling its promises are key elements which will directly impact on citizen-voters' overall assessment of a political party and how they will vote in an election. How do Jamaicans perceive the PNP?
There is a troubling perception among the Jamaican citizenry that the brand image of the PNP has undergone a decisive and unwelcomed shift in posture from its early socialist beginnings. Conceived in September 1938, only months after the historic labour rebellion - in which the Jamaican working classes sought improved working conditions, wages and a better way of life - the PNP was well positioned to be, as its name suggests, the 'people's party'. For the next several decades, the PNP actively manifested this people-centred politics by consistently and historically introducing policies that are responsive to the needs of the poor, premised on principles of equity and social justice. These principles continue to resonate deeply with Jamaican voters.
Yet, current perceptions of the PNP are unenthusiastic. Many believe the PNP is distant, disconnected, arrogant, and not overly concerned with accountability and transparent governance. By and large, the consensus is that the PNP has drifted away from the philosophical principles and core convictions on which the party was founded, and as one observer remarked, morphed into an 'anything goes' organisation.
ORIGINAL CORE VALUES
If the party is to restore its brand quality, its own credibility and the confidence of the voter-citizen, it is obliged to revert to its original core values, behavioural codes, and policies. These include integrity; real concern for the poor; a belief in education as an important key component that can move the masses out of poverty; a stable social order; and concern for the disadvantaged.
The PNP has a lot of work to do to improve its brand image. Indeed, its electoral defeat should serve as a timely wake-up call for the party to return to the core image that once made its brand strong, respected, envied and seemingly indestructible. It must continue to be proactive rather than reactive to social conditions and circumstances impacting on the disadvantaged in society. Among the strongest features of Brand PNP is the consensus that it boasts an efficient political machinery and some of the shrewdest strategic thinkers and political campaigners in the Caribbean. As an organisation, it has always appeared to be less bifurcated than its main competitor. Indeed, part of the success of the PNP's political brand is that by comparison, it is seen to be a better team, better organised and more team-oriented; it speaks with one voice and is supportive of whomever is elected to lead. This image has appeared less so in the past few years. A transition in leadership is inevitable, but this must be civil.
The PNP is also seen to have a competent crop of second-tier leaders; indeed, the party appears to be supportive of younger members of the party, elevating them to positions of leadership and offering them greater responsibilities in the party and government. Yet, the young must illustrate that they have fresh ideas and genuine capacity for leadership, not merely shallow mock-ups and stand-ins for those retiring. In other words, the PNP must build on these positive elements of its brand. It must appeal to younger voters by taking advantage of the new technological platforms and spaces for political contact, connection and deliberation. The party must also appeal to the disenchanted middle and professional classes, the so-called 'articulate minority' whose perspectives and concerns are often ignored in the desperate stampede to pander to the grass roots. The middle classes must feel a strong sense that the party is working in their interests as well.
The entrenchment of the PNP as the 'people's party' cannot be taken for granted, nor can it be presupposed that people will always vote for the PNP. The instances of smug display, self-righteous contentment and arrogance must be replaced by respect for the people, inclusiveness, and a commitment to integrity and accountability.
All in all, the PNP's political brand remains strong and viable despite the elements of disintegration, negativity and disapproval which surround it. Yet, it has to derive fresh vision to respond to the new challenges the Jamaican society confronts. The party has to be a thriving, vigorous opposition and see itself as active catalysts for change. Most important, it must become self-critical, hold itself to account and to the scrutiny of the people. Once more, the trumpet sounds.
- Dr Hume Johnson is a political scholar. She teaches at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, USA.