Peter Espeut | Rewarding failure: it's Peter P’s turn
On May 8, 2001, it was quite a statement when three People's National Party (PNP) cabinet ministers sat in the front row at the orange funeral for William Augustus 'Willie Haggart' Moore, a notorious inner-city 'don' and leader of the Black Roses Crew. On February 26, 2006, those same three men - Dr Omar Davies, Dr Peter David Phillips, and Dr Enoch Karl Blythe - ran against Portia Simpson Miller for the leadership of the PNP. At the time, I remarked in this space that whoever won that election, a garrison member of parliament (MP) would become Jamaica's eighth prime minister.
When in Jamaica will we see an end to the influence of garrison politics?
It was general election campaign director Dr Peter Phillips who, at a political rally in York Town, Clarendon, on July 19, 2015, put the country and his party "On your marks!" for an early general election. The non-campaign dragged on, causing voter fatigue. Then Minister of Finance Phillips knew why an election had to be urgently called: the IMF clock for far-reaching reforms with serious public impact was ticking away.
In my column of November 27, 2015, I predicted a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) victory in the election with the words: "The IMF conditionalities chosen by this Government are biting hard; the devalued dollar has meant that the rise in the cost of living is noticeable every month, and everyone's almost-frozen wages mean that people are hurting. Party loyalties go only so far, and true-orange citizens of PNP country may soon enter their own Winter of Discontent".
Egged on by campaign director Phillips and his surrogates, the PNP went into an early general election in February 2016 convinced that it would have won. Since then, the cry has been that their defeat was "unexpected" and "surprising", but in my view, conditions on the ground and the opinion polls (see my column of January 29, 2016) were totally misread by the PNP.
Lacked social empathy
Much of the blame for the PNP 2016 general election loss must be placed at the feet of Comrade Phillips, with the many hats he wore. A dry speaker at best, he lacked the charisma of a Michael or a Portia, or the tactics of Percy, the consummate political strategist. What he has is the clinical approach of the academic, which served him well as the architect and implementer of the harsh IMF economic reforms. But he lacked the social empathy which would have connected with the suffering masses who needed to see a human face in the midst of the IMF austerity. He could balance the books, but did not convince people that he could "balance their lives".
Those who guide the future of the PNP have determined that it is Peter P's turn now to lead them into the future, rather than Peter B. I wonder if the JLP had been asked to choose between the two, whether they would have come up with a different result?
Phillips has been an MP for his depressed inner-city constituency since 1993; what difference has he made there in the past 23 years, most of which time his party has been in power, and he a cabinet minister?
I think he would say that he gave the 2016 general elections his best shot; but it was not a spectacular display. Did he really think that the strong focus on the unfinished Beverley Hills home of Andrew and Juliet Holness would have won him the election? That strategy clearly backfired and reflects badly on the quality of the instincts and judgement of Peter Phillips.
What new and different strategies and proposals could Peter P bring to a 2020 or 2021 (or 2017?) general election? Can we look to him to dismantle the garrisons, to foster social transformation, to bring transparency to political financing, to curb extra-judicial killings by the police, and to ensure sustainable development? Does his past record suggest that he might do so?
Over the last few years, one of the major PNP propaganda lines has been that the JLP cannot run the country, and that only the PNP has the ability to lead Jamaica to progress. If this JLP Government does a passable job, that line of argument will not be tenable.
In 2020, Peter P will be over 70 years old. I hope history will not remember him as the first leader of a major Jamaican political party never to win a general election.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist.
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