Ian Boyne: Can the PNP be saved?
It was surreal: Impeccably socialist-credentialed Ronnie Thwaites of the People's National Party (PNP) writing an article titled 'Rethink school freeness mentality' inveighing against abolishing auxiliary fees, while conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Education Minister Ruel Reid champions the cause. If you live long enough ... .
That unlikely picture highlights the dilemma that faces the PNP today and is at the heart of the soul-searching now taking place in that party: How does it define itself and distinguish itself from the JLP? How does it renew and recreate itself? In whose image and for whose cause? Some Comrades gathered last Sunday at the Jamaica Conference Centre to thrash out those issues, and PNP presidential hopeful Peter Bunting had his own forum to give his perspectives at a panel session at the Jamaica Theological Seminary (JTS) last Thursday evening.
From election night at PNP headquarters after the shocking defeat (to many), the Rev Garnett Roper mooted the idea that the PNP needed to go back to its ideological roots and begin to again talk ideas. (Incidentally, he is president of JTS). Since then, a number of Comrades have been saying that the party made a mistake to downplay its socialist ideology, with some saying that the JLP has hijacked its message with that party's free tuition, free health care, and tax exemption to poor and lower-middle-income workers.
But the Comrades have been conflicted on the issues. For on the one hand, some are saying that the party needs to recapture its people-based, socialist initiatives and platform, while others, wanting to slam the JLP Government, feel constrained to point to its "recklessness" and "fiscal irresponsibility" in pursing "populist" programmes like abolishing auxiliary fees and implementing the $1.5-million tax break.
Over the past four years particularly, the PNP has transformed itself into a poster child of neo-liberalism, dutifully carrying out the policies of the International Monetary Fund. The PNP has rebranded itself as a fiscally conservative, austerity-accommodating and market-friendly party. The IMF and other multilaterals have heaped praises on the PNP Government for its faithful implementation of pro-capitalist policies and programmes. The Jamaican private sector has been fulsome in its praise.
Finance Minister Peter Phillips was almost deified at that luncheon in honour of IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde by Lagarde herself and the private-sector spokespersons.
And the fact of the matter is that Jamaica owes a debt of gratitude to the PNP Government for its disciplined management of the economy over the past four years. The Government took tough, unpopular decisions that had to be made in the long-term interest of the country. In my view, Peter Phillips being crowned Man of the Year by The Gleaner was richly deserved. Peter Phillips put his own personal political stocks on the line by sticking with a tough but necessary IMF austerity programme.
I have sounded contradictory on this matter, and in a country where so many manifest poor comprehension skills, I will attempt to clarify, though it will make no difference to many. I believe the IMF medicine was necessary, but not sufficient. I also believe that there is always room for contesting targets and policies with the IMF.
I believe, as I have written even while the PNP was in power (do a check), that Audley Shaw has exhibited a commendably critical approach to IMF policies. Peter Phillips has seemed to me to be too enamoured by neo-liberal orthodoxy. I never lacked the courage to say so even when his Government was in power. In my commentary on his Budget presentation last year (March 25), I said plainly: "I am uneasy about Peter's seeming unquestioned loyalty to IMF orthodoxy. Audley is more sceptical, challenging IMF theology. I support Audley stoutly in his call for specific incentives to the productive sector ... . I warn that the growth agenda could be imperilled if Peter does not adopt a little of Audley's scepticism abut IMF dogma."
I have never been intimidated by any politician or government, and none has ever dared to threaten to victimise me because of my passionately guarded independence and non-partisanship. While the PNP was in power, I wrote this in my column of November 29 last year: "Audley Shaw might overdo the playing to the gallery bit, but to his credit, it must be said that he has shown a boldness and intellectual nerve in standing up to IMF dogma. That is commendable. He has deftly criticised specific IMF policies and has shown how wrong-headed some of them are. I think that while we are stuck with the IMF, we have to ensure that we don't blindly follow its prescriptions but have the intellectual confidence to critique its ideas. The IMF is not infallible." So when I said recently that Audley would find policy space if there is any to satisfy commitments made to the people, I was saying nothing new.
While I accept that we need an IMF programme simply because we can't do without it in the real world, despite what my Marxist friend Lloyd D'Aguilar thinks, I also believe we can't just lay down and take whatever the IMF is offering. But let us accept that Peter Phillips did a good thing to get the IMF programme back on track after it was derailed by the former JLP Government. We have to commend him and the last PNP Government for their political courage, economic good sense, and patriotism in steering us through a difficult IMF programme.
HOW DOES IT REDEFINE ITSELF?
But the problem with the PNP is, how does it redefine itself? How does it rebrand to the people? D.K. Duncan, who, since the 1970s has been one of my favourite politicians and whose honesty and plain speaking are exceeded by none, was up to his usual plain-speaking self last Sunday. D.K. pointed to the tight spot the PNP faced in marketing itself in the last election.
How could it sell itself as the party of the people while imposing austerity measures? How could it offer immediate gratification for the mass of votes and its own supporters when it was sworn to an IMF programme? In the 1970s, D.K. told Comrades the PNP could talk socialism philosophically and then cite a range of social programmes as the practical outworking (praxis) of that philosophy. So when the PNP was teaching socialism in its group meetings, it could point to free education, minimum wage, land lease, JAMAL, the Pioneer Corps, and equal pay for women as the manifestation of that philosophy.
In the last election, where were its socialist ideas manifested? That it had put the country on a path for fiscal sustainability was objectively good, but how do you make that sexy to the public? The PNP had a really serious marketing and public-relations challenge. And it couldn't cross it.
The problem today is how it distinguishes itself from the JLP. The JLP is a capitalist party that is committed to austerity, fiscal discipline, and an IMF programme, too. This Budget already shows it is committed to fiscal prudence. There is no increase. In fact, Phillips himself is complaining that the Government might have cut back too much, to the point of threatening some vital areas.
If through creative policy-making and strategising the JLP manages to achieve fiscal discipline while creating jobs and widening social-welfare opportunities, how will the PNP make itself relevant? Jamaicans are not turned on by socialist economics. The view of the Gleaner editorial writer on Wednesday, 'The PNP's incoherent debate', is shared by most Jamaicans: "Yes, return to the intellectual ferment, dialogue, and debate of the Manley era, but not to his economics." That won' turn on this generation.
I would warn the PNP, though, not to start sounding reactionary and not to oppose opportunities to uplift poor people and their children. Don't be so wrapped in the fine linen of neo-liberal IMF dogma that you fail to stand with the Jamaican masses in their cry for growth with equity.