Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Editorial: The PNP’s incoherent debate

Published:Wednesday | April 27, 2016 | 4:00 AM

It is good and useful that the People's National Party (PNP), in the wake of its election defeat, is engaged in some serious soul-searching to determine where it went wrong and why many people are disenchanted with the party. As with any such exercise, there is always the danger of coming away with the message influenced by those who talk the longest, at the highest decibel and with the greatest hyperbole.

From the loudest of the public pronouncements, thus far, it would seem, at least to outsiders, that the emerging consensus is that the party has drifted too far from its roots of democratic socialism and had abandoned the values championed by Michael Manley in the 1970s when his government engaged in an aggressive attempt at social engineering and distributive politics.

Venesha Phillips, for example, believes that the PNP has to look to its past for its future, building out "the framework that has been laid out from the 1960s and 1970s".

"That is what we really ought to be doing," the councillor of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) said at a weekend forum of PNP members and supporters, dubbed by its organisers as a grass-roots reasoning. But whatever it is that Ms Phillips and others may be attempting to convey, the declarations, on close scrutiny, are, for the most part, opaque, incoherent, intellectually lazy, and economically muddled.

We appreciate the wistfulness and sense of loss and abandonment of many PNP members and supporters who believe that their party's place on the ideological spectrum is being appropriated by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), whose promises of income tax concessions and increased social spending won the day in the February election. It evoked Michael Manley.

There are many good reasons to adulate Michael Manley more than the fact that he was a charismatic, larger-than-life personality and a great orator. He was deeply intellectual. He engaged Jamaicans at home and was at the heart of a globally contentious debate about the structure of the world economy and its unfairness to poor countries. The same qualities and instincts that made Mr Manley heroic and engaging caused him to be a divisive figure at the time of the Cold War.

 

DISTRIBUTING POVERTY

 

But Michael Manley's strength was hardly economics. He promoted and implemented free education, free health care and school feeding programmes. And he subsidised other goods and services. When the private sector became skittish and bolted, the Government acquired enterprises and ran them badly. During his time, the public-sector deficit reached as high as 18 per cent of GDP, the currency tumbled, and the economy declined. The upshot: His government's redistributive programme became one of distributing poverty. When Mr Manley returned to office at the end of the 1980s, he had changed his economics.

What the PNP administration of the past four years demonstrated was admirably fiscal discipline in a bid to deal with Jamaica's oversized debt and decades of weak economic growth. It understood that Jamaica's circumstance did not allow for the kind of Keynesian spending that many propose and is implicit in some of the proposals of disenchanted PNP supporters. Yes, return to the intellectual ferment, dialogue and debate of the Manley era, but not his economics.

That is a lesson not only for the PNP, but their opponents, too.