Ian Boyne: Portia faces life
It is now common talk on the political verandah that the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) have swapped roles: The JLP is offering the working class hope and advancement, while the PNP has become factious. Leaks, back-stabbing and internal intrigue, long seen as the domain of the JLP, are now common fare in PNP circles, according to reports.
There used to be a time when the PNP was known to keep its internal business under ‘heavy, heavy manners’, locked away from the glare of the press and public scrutiny. In the lead-up to the last election, however, Comrades were ‘tracing’ in the streets, on platforms and on social media, and leaking information to embarrass each other. Since the PNP’s electoral loss, there have been reports of increasing tension and drama and calls for the removal of the party president, Portia Simpson Miller, as well as four other Ps — Paul (Burke), Peter (Phillips), Phillip (Paulwell) and (Robert) Pickersgill.
The ageist prejudice has been resurrected — just as it was right after Andrew Holness’ first ascension as prime minister in 2012 — to add fuel to the fire to ‘bun out’ the oldsters and make way for young blood. The disastrously ineffective political ground and air campaign waged by the oldsters; their missteps, including their decision not to debate and their handling of constituency matters and not connecting with the people, are being cited as main reasons why they should go.
Portia’s towering strength and unchallengeable authority is seen as diminished by her second electoral loss, and is being used as wedge to get her out and not give her the option of retiring gracefully. There are some of the Young Turks in the party who now seem emboldened to challenge Portia and push for her exit. They are calling for ‘courage’ to ‘renew’. And, of course, they are bolstered by ‘the articulate minority’ and sections of the media not enamoured by Portia. Portia faces her biggest test yet.
But her would-be challengers had better heed the warning of Delano Franklyn, a main supporter of the man who had formerly been seen as her natural successor, Peter Phillips. Writing in the Sunday Observer last week, Franklyn stresses, “No one person in the PNP is responsible for the election defeat. We all are. It is not an issue of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, as some would want to make it out to be.”
Then he reminds that the party was able to have a smooth transition from Michael Manley to P.J. Patterson and then, after two internal elections, the transition from P.J. to Portia. “The same principle and general understanding of the unity of purpose and maintaining the stability of the party should be applied when it is time for Portia to go. To do otherwise would be going against the culture of the party.” Is it too late for Delano’s plea to be heeded? In my mind, there are some key considerations in the minds of those Comrades calling for Portia to go now rather than later.
They see Andrew Holness’ hold on power as being very tenuous, with his one-seat margin. As he himself said, there is no margin for error. And to err is human. So those PNP members are thinking that it’s not a matter of giving Portia her own sweet time to leave for we have five years before an election. The next general election could be this year. And they feel the people don’t want Portia, but a renewed PNP. Some of her key challengers might be young, but they see themselves in a race against time. There is also a local government election that is certainly coming up soon.
They feel they have a better chance in that election with Portia out of the way. So they are impatient. Portia’s Comrade critics also sense that Andrew Holness is a far more astute player than they had surmised. He seems to be making all the popular moves; moves highly applauded by the people. And he is social media savvy and knows how to play traditional media, too. Peter Phillips is also a major potential loser because of the present political dynamics. Just a few weeks ago, Peter was the natural successor. A shoo-in. But now, badly tarnished by the election as the attack dog for Andrew’s big house, as well as campaign director for the failed electoral bid, he is seen as a liability. Many have written him off.
The Gleaner, which has strongly supported Phillips and named him just before the election as its Man of the Year, wrote an obituary-like editorial on Thursday, hailing him as “the finance minister who marshalled the economy through deep uncertainty and is now engaged in a deep intellectual discourse on Jamaica’s future”. The editorial says, “Should Mrs Simpson Miller go now, the natural successor would be Peter Phillips ... .” But later it manifests doubt by stating, “Should the party decide it needs someone closer in age to Prime Minister Andrew Holness to compete ... Dr Phillips may not be the choice.”
The PNP must realise that whatever are the views of the media — social or traditional — Portia Simpson Miller remains overwhelmingly popular among grass-roots Comrades. Anyone who wants to push her out now had better be prepared to deal with the wrath and fury of those Comrades. Intellectuals and the intelligentsia might have their misgivings about Portia Simpson Miller, but they don’t get to decide the leadership of the PNP. And the parliamentary group is neither idiotic nor suicidal. That group knows that the PNP massive doesn’t want Portia to go, and all she has to do to incur their venom on them is to let on as to who is trying to push her.
The PNP needs the greatest emotional intelligence skills, interpersonal relations savvy and practical wisdom. The party had better rely on the sage advice of P.J. Patterson and be glad he is still alive. They will need all his skills of consensus building, trade-offs and compromise. Portia can be stubborn. And that is what, no doubt, irritates her internal critics. But they have to learn to deal with her. Plus, there is a certain respect, honour and deference that she deserves. I am not talking about cultic devotion. But there is something to be said about how you deal with someone who has given as much as she has to the PNP. Those who would want to push her must also know that the tremendous loyalty and love she has generated among her allies would never make them forgive them for trying to humiliate her.