Ian Boyne: PNP: ready, set, squabble!
Portia Simpson Miller is set to deliver today what almost certainly will be her pre-election conference speech, amid doubts about her management of her party's internal affairs and what seems like growing evidence of the Labourisation of her party.
Known previously for its tight and judicious management of its internal dissent and normal organisational conflict, leaving the fractiousness, divisiveness and bitter infighting to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), the People's National Party (PNP) has been experiencing raucous constituency challenges and acrimonious party feuds. Some have been blaming the party leader for not applying a firm hand and for being MIA - missing in action, a term which seemed to have rankled her last weekend when she slammed a Sunday Gleaner front-page story making that charge.
The recent outburst by PNP Member of Parliament (MP) Dayton Campbell against fellow Comrade and government minister Lisa Hanna; the threat last weekend by MP Lloyd B. Smith to reveal the party's "travesty of democracy ... skulduggery", "corruption" and "hijacking" of the democratic process; and the taking of the party to court by one Comrade for irregularities and party constitutional breaches is just not like the PNP at all. Comrades will jam the National Arena today and dance and prance, but there is a widespread feeling outside of the Arena that all is not well in the PNP.
As The Gleaner's editorial of last Thursday puts it: "... [T]he rash of acrimonious challenges to sitting members of parliament by its constituency parties has dented the reputation of the governing PNP for internal discipline, which enabled it to resolve its disputes before they became messy public arguments."
My colleague, Gary Spaulding, agrees by saying in his article on Wednesday that "despite the yarns being spun by party gurus, including PNP President Portia Simpson Miller, Chairman Robert Pickersgill and General Secretary Paul Burke, the challenges are too many for comfort". It is indisputable that the PNP's reputation for containing dissent has been tarnished and that there has been rebellion in PNP heaven. But an objective, dispassionate analysis shows that it is not just spin that this is a part of the messy democratic process.
People's and delegates' choices
It is an objective good that no sitting MP can feel unchallengeable. It is an objective good that delegates have the power to decide whom they want to represent them, rather than having the party leader just come in and impose her will. Part of the problem with some of those who have been challenged is that they were not chosen by their party delegates in the first place. They were imposed on the people.
The fact is that both our political parties, not just the JLP, have a history of undemocratic actions. It was just a given and never challenged that Michael Manley, despite his progressive rhetoric, was the one who determined who would run. Oh, yes, the party's constitution always allowed for challenges and people could theoretically decide where they wanted to "place themselves for service". But if Michael did not want a certain person challenged, he would simply call in the would-be challenger and, after belting out not so few Jamaican choice words, that person would immediately 'figet it'!
But times are changing, and organisations, political and non-political, are being challenged from below by members who no longer want to be dictated to. The spirit of the times is catching up with even the PNP.
Plus, the PNP leadership itself, to its credit, has instituted reforms since 2011 which have resulted in greater democratisation of the party. An important reform is the rule that sitting MPs must to go through a ratification process. That is, even if there is no challenge, an MP must get a certain percentage of delegate votes to run. All of us in media who support the deepening of democracy in our political parties should welcome that. It was that process which Lloyd B. Smith failed to pass on the weekend, only securing 36 out of 102 votes cast.
No MP should feel that because of his seniority, he is above ratification. Sometimes we in media cover the news and comment on it as though what is in the interest of a party is necessarily in the interest of the country. So, yes, it is in the interest of the PNP and the JLP to manage their dissent, to control their factions and keep up the image of a together, loving party. In an election year especially, it is not in the interest of the parties to appear factious and divisive.
A party could end up not having the best person to represent a constituency, but that might be more expedient for the party and its electoral chances than having the right person challenge that person for representation. We in media can undermine the democratic process by framing all challenges as a sign of party weakness. When political party leaders know that their delegates have minds of their own and know what their own solutions are, rather than having to be directed by party central, that is a good thing.
An unintended consequence of all this moaning in the media about the challenges in the PNP could be an implicit encouragement to keep the status quo and foster democratic inertia. Gary Spaulding's view, therefore, that "the challenges are too many for comfort" begs the question, whose comfort? The PNP's comfort is not to be equated with the country's comfort. Our role as journalists is not to advance the electoral chances of any party.
Now some will charge that this "positive framing" of what is taking place in the PNP by me is just another vulgar demonstration of hypocrisy and one rule applying to the JLP and another to the PNP. First, we are not comparing apples with apples. Continuous bickering, undermining, plotting against a party leader when the leadership contest is over is different from the competitive jostling which comes from constituency contests. The formation of various factions or gangs to oust Eddie Seaga is not the same as constituency or regional challenges.
No change now
It seems key persons opposed to Andrew Holness have also come to see that wanting to change him on the eve of an election is suicidal. So let's not confuse the two issues. The JLP's factiousness is of a different nature and species. But there is still another aspect that must be considered by those who are pushing the democracy-is-messy narrative: It's one thing to broaden democracy and to put in mechanisms to discourage the complacency of incumbency, but it is quite another thing to manage how that challenge is conducted. The PNP has not been doing that well.
There is no excuse for some of the bitterness and acrimonious rivalry which have been seen recently in the PNP. That is not an essential element of democracy. The party has to manage that better. If it does not, what is termed Labourisation will continue. The precedence of bitterness and sore losing will then become part of the party culture. D.K. Duncan has warned darkly of some strange, un-PNP tactics being employed recently in campaigning. He withdrew from the chairmanship race because of what was happening with the campaigning by former Labourite, Ian Hayles.
If the PNP leadership and Portia Simpson Miller herself are not decisive in managing the quality of the relationships in the party, the PNP could descend into chaos and adopt a new, cantankerous culture.
The JLP, however, should take no comfort in the PNP's internal challenges. Today I suspect you will witness an energy, a vibe, a rallying of the forces which only the scent of victory can galvanise. Part of the reason for the challenges is that many smell victory for the PNP and they don't want to be left out of the spoils. People don't rush to a sinking ship.
The strong backing of the PNP by the moneyed classes, the fact that the private sector strongly supports the economic reform programme and doesn't want it disrupted, as well as Jamaica's strong backing from the International Monetary Fund and the international community, generally, stand the PNP in good stead.
The PNP Government managed to settle a wage agreement with the vast majority of public-sector workers despite tough times, and even at this late stage in its term it is in a statistical dead heat with the Opposition party.
That must be good news for them. Portia should not just expend her speech time today in regaling achievements. She should show that she truly understands the pain of this IMF austerity programme. She must be realistic about the country's options. She must inspire both Comrades and non-PNP citizens.
People are sceptical about promises. There must be no hubris this afternoon.