Dr Peter Phillips | Reflections and lessons for the next chapter of People’s National Party
With the People’s National Party (PNP) about to embark on the next chapter of its journey, there are lessons that I hope all members of the Movement can reflect on and use to rebuild an even stronger party.
Indeed, this year marks my 37th year as a member of the National Executive Council (NEC), the highest decision-making body outside of the PNP’s annual conference. That was 1983 and, as such, my early years as a member of the NEC were a time of rebuilding. We are again at that stage.
The collective leadership of the PNP holds in its hands the stewardship of a vital national treasure, which the Jamaican people have benefited from for over seven decades. When I speak of collective leadership here, I mean from party groups to regions to NEC to the party’s executive committee. This treasure has been handed down to all of us in the movement by previous generations who have sacrificed, struggled, fought, and in some instances have paid the ultimate price with their lives. We must not take our responsibilities lightly. Without a viable PNP, Jamaica will be a poorer place, and if on our watch we fail to keep our party alive and relevant, we will have proved to be unworthy of the stewardship that we exercise today.
Philosophy dictates action
Let us also remember that the PNP has always been a part of the progressive movement. We have always led the fight for self-government and for the deepening of our democracy. We not only fought for the vote and extended the vote to 18-year-olds, but felt that democracy extended beyond just a vote at election time. That is why we moved for worker participation; that is why we struggled to get student representatives on the school boards and the university, to spread the democratic ethos. Our participatory democracy respects the freedom of the individual to express their views and to organise politically while respecting divergent views in the country.
As Progressives, we have also been committed to the education and training of every Jamaican to build a socially cohesive society and a productive labour force with the capacity to produce goods and services to global standards. I am a beneficiary of the path-breaking 1957 reforms in education which established the Common Entrance Examination to expand access to high schools, and I’m sure that many across Jamaica have equally benefited.
Our party also transformed healthcare delivery, and I’m only too grateful for the opportunity to have played a role in bringing universal healthcare to Jamaica. This accounts for the fact that, despite our economic circumstances, Jamaica has life expectancy rates at First-World levels. We must protect these gains, particularly at this time when the economic inequalities continue to widen. Only a progressive party (and we must make sure that the PNP continues as that kind of party), can protect and advance these gains.
We have stood up for sovereign equality of nations and self-determination of peoples. Even before Jamaica was independent, Norman Manley’s administration stood up for the African people in South Africa against apartheid and banned trade with that country. We stood up for Cuba in the 1970s not because we were supporters of Cuban communism and the way they organised themselves, but because we believed in the right of the Cuban people to determine their own future. They are currently under attack and we must remember who we are and maintain our proud tradition of standing up for justice and principle, on behalf of all people.
Taking a stand doesn’t come without cost. Neither did our fight for freedom from plantation slavery. It is our willingness to pay the price for what we value that determines the quality of our character and defines the movement that we all lead.
At every stage in the history of the party, disunity has been at the root of every defeat we have suffered. It was the case in the elections after the 1961 Referendum on Federation; and again in 1980, and I dare say in 2007 and in 2020. The Jamaican electorate has never voted for a house divided against itself. The PNP must learn that the building of a united party does not mean that we will always be agreeing or smiling with each other. However, unity has to be rooted in the recognition that the collective interest of the PNP is bigger than the interest of any one member as individuals.
Be conscious, too, that the proliferation of communication technologies can be used to promote individualism and undermine the collective unity which is vital to the movement’s progress. Every difference of opinion gets amplified with the tweets, Facebook posts, or the comments on WhatsApp. This becomes a tool of disunity in the hands of unthinking PNP supporters, and a weapon for our political opponents to use against us.
My mind goes back to that rebuilding process in the 1980s when I was a member and chairman of the Political Education Commission. Even later still, I became a member of the National Campaign Committee for the 1986 Local Government elections. The comradeship I experienced working with colleagues will always remind me of what the PNP is and can be.
Every weekend, teams would leave party headquarters at 89 Old Hope Road going to party schools – to Mandeville, to Montego Bay, to Casa Maria in St Mary. In the evenings, there was the Vernon Arnett School and there was the Third Week Programme for Constituency Executive Committees and individual party groups all across the country. The party must again embark on a rebuilding process that begins on the ground, not at the top. Begin at the foundation with the people and build brick by brick.
Cut the cancer of vote buying
The party can and must be motivated by ideas. Yes, vote buying and voter suppression are increasingly becoming factors in the political process. Vote buying is not new to Jamaican politics. In 1944, as is reported, some politicians were putting six pence in a bag of flour. Today’s equivalent is the $15,000 wrapped in a T-shirt.
Only grass roots organisation and political education can provide the PNP with the kind of electoral support that is not for sale. Supporters of the movement must understand what we are fighting for and see themselves as agents of change who can neither be bought nor sold. However, we cannot insulate Comrades against vote buying when the use of money in internal elections in the PNP is like a cancer that will kill the body of the authentic PNP. Leave it alone! Once the purchase of votes is legitimised inside the party, you cannot go out and tell the people not to sell their votes. You just won’t have any credibility.
Rebuilding is not an easy process, and those who lead must lead by example. Rebuilding the movement, the PNP must start from the ground and it must be rooted in a philosophy.
The movement needs to rebuild the ‘groups’ as the cornerstones of the party structure. However, groups today must be relevant to today’s Jamaica. It should be required that party groups play a leading role in their communities and do community work. Party groups should not be limited to a report that 10 people came to a meeting at one point and sat down in a room and signed a paper and say they met. Renewal of the PNP means bringing an end to the practice of groups being organised and paid for purely in order to vote at internal elections.
Party groups must receive political education, become believers in the principles and objectives and purposes of the PNP and demonstrate responsible citizenship in their communities. They must participate in activities that uplift the community, such as painting a basic school, cleaning a school yard or helping the elderly. They can assist in the delivery of community healthcare or help students with homework.
When you do that month by month, and week by week, when election time comes, the voters would already have experienced the kind of representation they will receive by electing PNP candidates. The way the PNP now operates with groups is almost an indication that we have lost the soul and forgotten the essence of what it should mean to be PNP. Rebuild the groups as foundation.
The renewal process must bring to the PNP the social classes that originally built the national movement – the workers, small farmers, teachers, nurses, and small and medium-size entrepreneurs. At the outset, leaders at all levels of the PNP comprised farmers in their own organisations who were walking along that road of progress in their own way; teachers who had their own organisations and the leadership of the teachers’ organisation was also part of the leadership of the PNP.
I believe my own induction into the PNP began around my own father’s dinner table with people like Wesley Powell and Edith Dalton James and all the others who were a part of that fraternity. I didn’t realise it was an immersion in philosophy, ideas and solutions, as I was sitting aside as a six-year-old and seven-year-old, but nevertheless the message was getting through. The students, the workers movements, all of these things, in the 1970s, the 1980s, every trade union with the exception of the BITU could be seen as part of the national movement led by a progressive PNP.
Every effort must also be made to reach out to the students, to the academics, to the artists, as in the time of Edna Manley, and discover the Albert Huies, the Jamaican Folk Singers and the Frats quintets of present day. They are all out there waiting for the opportunity to bring their talent to the stage. This is a critical part of the building of the nation which involves cultural work and the spreading of nationalist values and positive social values.
It has been my privilege to serve my party, our movement. It is the PNP that has enabled me to accomplish things that I consider to be important to the development of Jamaica. I have formed some vital friendships that have lasted decades. I have enthusiastically participated in many battles in our country’s march for progress. I have been honoured to have led this party. Now, that chapter must come to a close. I leave confident that I did my duty to the best of my ability with honour and sincerity of purpose.
I wouldn’t claim I was always right but I did what I thought was best, to the fullest extent that I could see with my clarity of vision and with a clear conscience. We experienced both triumphs and defeats. That is life. Now the rest of the judgment rests with God Almighty and with history.
I thank my Comrades and each and every one of you who have given me your fellowship and your loyalty along this journey.
God bless you all. One Heart, One Love.
- Dr Peter Phillips is the president of People’s National Party, and leader of the opposition. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.