Editorial | Phillips’ new, old radicalism
Politicians often conflate declarations of intent with action, but Peter Phillips will know that a single speech doesn't translate to an overhaul of the ethos of his People's National Party (PNP), or adherence thereto.
But Sunday's inaugural address by the new president suggests that Dr Phillips perceives his mandate as leading the rediscovery of the PNP's roots in mass mobilisation, while reinterpreting its Fabian socialism in the context of an uncertain, globalised world firmly grounded in the Washington Consensus.
Expressed differently, he appears to envision the new PNP as something between Michael Manley's of the 1970s and the one of its last PNP administration, in which he was finance minister, leading an overhaul of the Jamaican economy and enforcing fiscal discipline alien to the Manley era.
However deeply he may feel about his mission, a clear strategic aim of the leader, with this nod to a new, palatable radicalism, is to draw clear distinctions between the PNP and the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), whose narrative and policies have become increasingly blurred. We will know, in time, how successful Dr Phillips' project is. What is known, though, is that he has chosen a difficult challenge by which to define his leadership.
A GENERATION OLDER
At 67, Dr Phillips is a generation older than his JLP counterpart. So, a notable element of his speech was his enticing of young people to ditch cynicism and join the PNP in helping to fashion a new vision for Jamaica. "We need your energy. We need the idealism. And we need your courage," he said.
Dr Phillips sought to counter this distrust of politics among the youth, as well as other Jamaicans, on four fronts, by:
- Locating himself in the social and political radicalism of the 1960s and '70s;
- Evoking the social-engineering efforts - romanticised, or otherwise - of the Manley years;
- Committing the PNP to unfinished business in social transformation, such as land ownership, housing and education; and
- Declaring the PNP to be a broad tent, ready, willing and capable to accommodate all classes of Jamaicans, once they are committed the "philosophy and principles of upliftment (sic) of the people".
The latter is perhaps one of the two most significant challenges facing the PNP.
The other will be defining the role of the State in the economy.
ABANDONED BY THE MIDDLE CLASS
While it was founded in, and was for a long time an environment of, intellectual ferment, the PNP, after a sharp leftward swerve, has since the late 1970s been largely abandoned by middle-class Jamaicans, though it remained, through the 1990s up the mid-2000s, an effective election machinery, with a base resting primarily on the unemployed and working poor. In rebuilding the old alliance, Dr Phillips will have to assure groups to whom he appealed that his is a party worthy of their presence. In this regard, we would suggest that he add corruption as an issue to be attacked with the passion he proposes for the others.
Further, the PNP, in keeping with the ideals Dr Phillips expounded, will have to relearn the art of community mobilisation that apparently elapsed with the 1970s.
But most crucial to the success of the programmes outlined by Dr Phillips will be the capacity of a PNP government to maintain fiscal discipline, grow the economy, and generate the surpluses with which to finance the projects. It's no vilification of Manley to say that they fell far short here in the 1970s.