Editorial | Dr Phillips and the PNP
The depth of the crisis facing the People's National Party (PNP) is, paradoxically, reflected in, and by, Peter Phillips. He now appears to be its past and its future.
Dr Phillips is 66, an age at which, in a normal job, would formally be in retirement. He has been a politician for nearly three decades and has been a legislator for 26 years, 85 per cent of which he has served as a Cabinet minister, including four as senator. He twice, though narrowly, lost contests for the leadership of the PNP.
So, in the normal course of events, Dr Phillips ought not to be a person to whom the party looks to succeed Portia Simpson Miller when she eventually steps down, if, as is expected, she makes a historic blip of Karl Blythe's challenge.
Before Blythe's adventure and Dr Phillip's declaration of his revived interest in post-Simpson Miller leadership of the PNP, the calls for renewal were being made most loudly by younger members of the party, most of whom were perceived to be allies of Peter Bunting, who had signalled his intention to challenge Mrs Simpson Miller. Mr Bunting, however, has put that pursuit on hold.
The demands for renewal appeared, though, to be primarily about personalities and tactics in the face of the PNP's narrow loss in February's general election; that the party, for instance, wasn't sexy to young people because its old-guard leadership couldn't engage and communicate with them via new social-media technologies. The discourse hasn't, substantially, been about ideas; it has lacked philosophical or ideological framework. This is where Peter Phillips has a decided advantage. He is making a clear, intellectual argument for renewal, which he expounded on this past Sunday in an interview with the Observer.
The PNP's foundation is on the left of socialist democracy. Its declared mission was to build an egalitarian society that has at its centre the ideals of community participation. While the party held government for 22 of the previous 27 years, Dr Phillips' thesis is that it has misplaced its moorings, if not its essential core, as individualism and consumerism left "communities disintegrated, atomised [and with] no community spirit". The political engagement that attended the party during the leadership of founder Norman Manley and, later, Michael Manley, is now not nearly as rigorous.
"We haven't sufficiently continued that particular role of providing intellectual leadership for the country and mobilising public education programmes," Dr Phillips told his interviewer. "Similarly, we have failed to ... look at how does a party with our historical commitments to building an egalitarian society function in a world where these market forces associated with globalisation have been unleashed and ... have to be taken into account and adapted to."
The last point is particularly important given the PNP's record of the 1970s of expanding social welfare on a diminishing economic base, and Dr Phillips' own success as finance minister, over the four years up to February 2016, of stabilising the fiscal accounts, thus pulling Jamaica back from the brink of macroeconomic collapse.
Ultimately, Peter Phillips may not be the man to lead the PNP, or may be merely an interim leader. But he will be of great value to the PNP if he causes the party to engage in deep introspection and debate that cause it to stand for something.