Horace Levy | Phillips and the weight of expectation
Now that he has defeated his rival, Dr Peter Phillips has a huge task on his hands. It is not just to unify the party. It is to rebuild the party’s democratic socialism.
To my mind, this is the deeper and more critical need. Like many other Comrades, Phillips has affirmed its necessity, and in this regard has shown himself well ahead of Peter Bunting. But implementation has not, so far, been very noticeable.
Dr Phillips appears to lack not only the drive to implement what he proclaims, but, more important, the vision to grasp how it must apply and be boldly articulated for the current situation. A vibrant agricultural programme and people-inclusive measures to drive stalled economic growth, urban planning (and not on good farmland), police reform, and a murder control that doesn’t continue to feed the demand for a military coup, empowerment of deprived youth and low-income communities, migrating teachers and nurses, the chaotic transportation sector – these and many other issues clamour for articulate Opposition policies.
The Opposition has done well in exposing how corrupt the Government’s practices are. But that is secondary to policy leadership, and it is insufficient to clear up similar behaviour in the PNP’s past. On this, in fact, some action is urgently needed.
To be fair, the failure to bring forward its socialist legacy is true not just of Phillips, but of the party as a whole. It may be thought to have begun when Michael Manley, after his 1989 return to power, swung in a free-market direction. But the root lies deeper – in a preoccupation with power, which leads to exaggerating leader charisma for the sake of poll popularity and to obscuring the importance of policy. And this actually began in the late 1940s when, election-minded after two defeats, the party strained to enhance the image of Norman Manley so as to compete with Busta’s and in addition, not only ejected the Four Hs and their communist socialism, but scrapped even the democratic version that Michael went back to in the 1970s.
Whatever the historical roots, the outcome is a party unable to present to the people of Jamaica something distinct and different from its rival big-business-oriented and more capitalist Jamaica Labour Party. Another consequence is an inability to attract both young people impelled by a vision for their country and good candidates for municipal corporations and Parliament. Finding among them a party leader able to steer party and country maturely becomes then the further almost unsolvable challenge.
That individual for now is Peter Phillips, in my non-partisan and non-faction opinion the wrong person for the job. He should not have sought or accepted presidency of the PNP. I have the highest regard for his integrity and achievements in finance and other ministries, not least his creation of the Peace Management Initiative in 2002. These factors do not make up, however, for his lack of the specific qualities required of a political leader in Jamaica.
Yes, that is only my opinion, and following Phillips’ victory, it changes nothing. What it adds up to, though, is the burden it imposes on the rest of the PNP in a situation in which, because of our young country’s need for strong leaders in its break from colonialism, voters still pay more attention to the messenger than to the message.
Collective leadership around Phillips can do a significant amount, however. And the number of good people in the party is enough for a prompt and effective start towards reviving its real and extremely valuable contribution to Jamaica. It will offer the party, by the way, its best chance of seriously competing with the JLP in the next general election.