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Arnold Bertram: Time to renew PNP

Published:Sunday | April 3, 2016 | 4:00 AM
Arnold Bertram
In this April 19, 1990 Gleaner file photograph, then Minister of Public Utilities and Transport Robert Pickersgill whispers to then Minister of Labour, Welfare and Sports Portia Simpson during the delivery of the Throne Speech at Gordon House. Pickersgill, PNP chairman, and the now-married Simpson Miller, party president, are among the hierarchy in the departure lounge, say analysts.
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Minister of Finance Audley Shaw has now admitted that he will have to take the JLP's campaign promise of income tax relief of $18,000 per beneficiary, for earners of income up to $1.5m, back to the drawing board. Despite repeated warnings from then Minister of Finance Peter Phillips, as well as the chairman of the Private Sector Tax Committee, Joe Matalon, that the JLP's tax proposal could not be implemented in the manner proposed, both Shaw and Holness made their tax-relief promise the centrepiece of the JLP's election campaign.

A public outcry is already gathering momentum, as those who took Shaw and Holness at their word are now soberly coming to the conclusion that their promise of tax relief was more of an election gimmick than a well-thought-out plank of tax reform.

The erosion of public confidence in the JLP leadership could well paralyse the new administration if Shaw attempts to fund the tax-relief promise by imposing new tax burdens. In the meantime, not much is being said by the JLP leadership about the other election promises which include relief of user fees for secondary education, an increase in the minimum wage, and a stipend for youth enrolled in training programmes.

However, much more is at stake than the JLP's loss of face. It took the PNP four years of sustained fiscal discipline to restore Jamaica's position of trust and respect in the international community. It also took the sacrifices made by bondholders, pensioners, public servants and unionised workers to rescue the country from the brink of bankruptcy and return the economy to growth. The electorate is not going to stand idly by and watch the JLP administration sacrifice these hard-won gains on the altar of political opportunism.

 

RENEWAL OF PNP

It is against this background that the renewal of the People's National Party (PNP) takes on a new urgency. However, the renewal of the PNP cannot be focused solely on the leadership; it must also include the transformation of the party's base if the PNP is to address the growing concern that, in its present state, the PNP will not be able to effectively fill the breach if the JLP falters. The withdrawal of the intelligentsia, organised labour and the professional organisations from the ranks of the party has left a gap that the unemployed and lumpen cannot fill.

The absence of rigorous policy discussions among the leadership of the PNP was apparent during the 2016 election campaign, and the lack of capacity in the party's base left the PNP unable to communicate its message of success in rescuing the economy from the brink of bankruptcy, establishing a stable macroeconomic framework and returning the economy to growth. As a consequence, the PNP's campaign was substantially reduced to a series of 'carnivals'. For the first time since 1944, the PNP's election-day network proved incapable of accurately monitoring the voting and bringing out its support.

 

LESSONS TO BE LEARNT

As the PNP faces the challenges of renewal, it would be useful for the party to remind itself of the kind of leadership and the social profile of the party base that carried it to the successes of its early years.

In 1938, the leadership of both the party and its trade union affiliate - the Trade Union Congress - was drawn from the social classes and groups that shared a vision of an independent Jamaica and were committed to making it a reality. These social classes and groups included the intelligentsia, with four Oxonians - N.W. Manley, N.N. Nethersole, Henry Fowler and H.P. Jacobs (three of whom had been awarded the Rhodes Scholarship).

Sharing equal prominence was the leadership of the Jamaica Union of Teachers - C.T. Saunders (president), Edith Dalton-James and Howard Cooke; the president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, Rudolph Burke, and the cultural nationalists led by Edna Manley and Roger Mais. The business community was represented by William Seivwright, Wills O. Isaacs and C.G. Walker, while the journalists Frank and Ken Hill; labour leader A.G.S. Coombs; the peanut vendor Wesley McBean; minister of religion O.G. Penso; the railway fitter Arthur Henry; and the youngest medical officer of health, Ivan Lloyd, rounded out the rest of the leadership.

The leaders, in turn, recruited the finest political cadres to build the first decentralised mass democratic party in the Western Hemisphere. Norman Manley led the islandwide programme of political organisation and civic education from in front. Leaving his law practice every afternoon, he rarely returned home before 11 p.m. The 21-year-old Richard Hart recalls that he only took off two nights each week, and that Ken Hill was out every single night. Between July and December 1941, 337 visits were paid by party guides from Kingston to 36 centres in St Thomas, St Mary, St Catherine, Manchester and upper St Andrew to carry out the organising and educational work of the party.

The party published its own weekly newspaper and actively supported the publication of a nationalist weekly, Public Opinion. The party debates on public policy formed the basis for regular publications. The Plan for Security (1943) launched a 10-week campaign to help Jamaica through the war years; The Plan for National Prosperity was the party's manifesto for the 1944 election campaign; and The Plan for Progress (1949) became the blueprint for the modernisation of the Jamaican economy.

 

THE MARCH FORWARD

It was this back-breaking effort that enabled the PNP to move from the humiliating defeat in the 1944 general election to lead both the JLP and the independents with a majority of the popular vote in the 1947 local government election. In the 1949 general election, the PNP not only won the popular vote but reversed the 1944 Corporate Area results by winning five of the six seats and then went on to win a majority of the seats in the KSAC as well as in seven of the 12 parishes in the 1951 local government election.

While we have much to learn from the PNP's leadership and base in the earlier period, the renewal process in this period faces new challenges, as the next PNP administration will be operating in a rapidly changing global environment. The fundamental task that will face the party in government next time around will be the completion of the process of economic reform and the achievement of sustained and equitable economic growth as the basis for a more socially cohesive society.

This mission will require the renewal process to elect leadership with vision and capacity as well as a proven record of performance to lead the transformation of the party's base and mobilise the nation to accomplish this mission. It is not a time to experiment with adventurers and neophytes.

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former PNP Cabinet minister. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and redev.atb@gmail.com.