Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Arnold Bertram | Whither the PNP?

Published:Sunday | September 4, 2016 | 9:00 AM
Michael Manley
Dr Peter Phillips
P.J. Patterson
Portia Simpson Miller
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I cannot recall a time when the People's National Party (PNP) has been as demoralised, confused, and uncertain of its future as it is now. Those who remember the party of Norman Manley know that the PNP today is not the same party "that built the national movement; that took Jamaica out of the colonial matrix ... ; that liberated the energy and the will and the spirit that has swept us forward and onward".

Younger Comrades recall with pride the party of Michael Manley, which waged an unrelenting campaign for social justice that made every Jamaican equal under the law, along with the body of legislation and programmes that expanded workers' rights.

During P.J. Patterson's tenure, the PNP continued to enjoy national and international respect, and Comrades approached each election with the confidence that their party had presided over the most extensive modernisation of Jamaica's physical infrastructure and the restoration of the social agenda.

Today, many Comrades feel a deep sense of betrayal; others seem ready to give up in despair. All point to a crisis of leadership. The degeneration of the PNP did not begin with the incumbency of Portia Simpson Miller, but there is no doubt that the process has accelerated under her watch.

From the outset, the party was deeply divided on the question of her capacity to lead the party. Both Michael Manley and Patterson decisively defeated their opponents in presidential elections. Manley defeated Vivian Blake 376 to 145, while Patterson overwhelmed Simpson Miller 2,322 to 756.

 

SHARP CONTRAST

 

In sharp contrast, Simpson Miller, even with Patterson's support, narrowly scraped home with less than 50 per cent of the delegate votes in the 2006 presidential contest. In that election, Simpson Miller received 1,775 votes; Peter Phillips 1,538; Omar Davies 283; and Karl Blythe 204.

Despite their overwhelming victories, both Manley and Patterson immediately embarked on a campaign to unite the party around vision and programme. Manley maintained dialogue with Blake until he convinced him to come out of retirement and take his place in the Cabinet. Patterson not only protected Simpson Miller during the presidential campaign, but elevated her at every opportunity.

Despite her narrow victory, Simpson Miller and her team established an administration on the basis of the winner takes all. Phillips retained his Cabinet post as the minister of national security after critical international partners made it clear that vital supporting programmes would be at risk. Despite his obvious merit, Fitz Jackson, Phillips' campaign manager in 2008, was excluded from the Cabinet.

The isolation of those who supported Phillips was compounded by Simpson Miller's choice of the weakest administrative support that any prime minister has had. I recall going to Jamaica House in 1974 as Michael Manley's parliamentary secretary, and shortly, after as his minister of state. In addition to the civil service appointments, Manley also recruited the services of O. K. Melhado, the CEO of the corporate giant Denoes & Geddes; noted economist Richard Fletcher, who was later recruited by the World Bank; and Professor Mike Smith, the internationally distinguished anthropologist. Other members of the team included advisers Moses Matalon and Rex Nettleford, as well as Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology at Harvard University, on a part-time basis. Corina Meeks, one of Jamaica's most capable public sector managers, was the director of communications and was assisted by Claude Robinson, Beverley Manley, and Easton Lee. Can anyone pretend that the Jamaica House of Portia Simpson Miller came anywhere close to recruiting that talent and capacity? This perhaps explains why she has led the PNP to two defeats in three elections.

The latest manifestation of Simpson Miller's weak leadership is the present crisis surrounding private-sector donations to the PNP. It is well established that members of the Jamaican private sector make sure that the party president is informed of their contributions, even if it is made through another senior leader of the party. These are the people they expect to take their calls later. While "powerful private-sector groups have managed over the years ... to secure special protection for their sector", quite often, the call from private-sector donors is to speed up the decision-making process by eliminating bureaucratic blocks, more so than with the intention to corrupt.

 

LACK OF CONFIDENCE

 

What is at the heart of what is currently perceived to be a scandal is that for the first time, the leader of the PNP has used her influence to install a treasurer and a general secretary, neither of whom enjoys the level of confidence within the party that such positions require. Private-sector donors know this and have chosen to hand over their contributions to the party officers that they trust rather than to those designating themselves as official channels. In addition, very few, if any, of the 63 PNP candidates want either the present general secretary or treasurer to be involved in the receipt and allocation of campaign donations.

However, it is clearly a matter of the greatest importance to the entire leadership when the general secretary of the PNP announces that it is his information that "it is an established practice for large Chinese firms to pay an 'agent's fee', ranging from one per cent to 1.5 per cent of the total project cost ... ", and asserts that "based on the level of expenditure on that project, the 'agent's fee' would have amounted to between US$10 million and US$12 million".

This clearly brings the integrity of the leadership of the party, members of the Cabinet in both political parties, as well as foreign investors into question.

 

NOT JUST PORTIA

 

Unfortunately, the crisis of leadership is no longer limited to the president of the party. At the start of the year, Peter Bunting announced a campaign for the renewal of the party and his intention to challenge President Simpson Miller for leadership. However, the thunderous applause that greeted the announcement of support for Phillips as a successor to Simpson Miller, at a meeting of the NEC, seems to have made Bunting reconsider. He no longer speaks of 'renewal' but takes time to assure the public of his loyalty to Simpson Miller. The senior members of his team, Mark Golding and Lisa Hanna, have followed his lead. It is to the credit of Phillips that he carried his demand for renewal to its logical conclusion by challenging Simpson Miller for leadership in 2008. This time, he faced the combined forces of Simpson Miller, Davies, Blythe, and Bunting.

Unfortunately, since then, he seems to have convinced himself that a continued public demand for renewal implies another challenge for leadership, which he should avoid. The vacuum created has opened the way for Blythe to emerge as the only voice currently demanding a renewal of the party based on a change of leadership.

There is much to the view that the traditional PNP is paying the inevitable price that any social class pays for allowing itself to be led by another, without agreement on the programme to be implemented. The crisis in the party will continue to deepen until the membership understands that "leadership is vision, programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, or the services they have rendered".

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and author. His published works include 'N.W. Manley & The Making of Modern Jamaica'. Send comments to redev.atb@gmail.com, and columns@gleanerjm.com.