Ian Boyne | Can the PNP be saved?
It's a time of great tribulation for the People's National Party (PNP), and unlike the biblical prophecy about the time of 'Jacob's trouble' when the archangel Michael will stand up for his people, the PNP's Michael is no longer around to wield his Rod of Correction at errant Comrades.
And though Comrade Leader Portia has threatened to "stamp my feet down on anyone who tries to undermine this noble movement", some Comrades doubt her capacity to do anything. Full stop. It is hard to remember a time when the PNP has been plagued by so many problems the week of its annual conference.
One of its veteran members, former ministers and sharpest minds, Arnold 'Scree' Bertram, in an In Focus column last Sunday, goes further. "I cannot recall a time," he writes, "when the Peoples National Party has been as demoralised, confused and uncertain of its future as it is now." Scree, perhaps our finest living political historian, continues: "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."
Another long-time radical from the 1970s, Louis Moyston, moans in an article in last Wednesday's Gleaner: "Many things have gone wrong in the PNP. Internal discussions are almost impossible due to the fear of offending and being abused by defensive pit bulls. Party members are fed up with the retreat from ideas and democracy inside the PNP. Whatever renewal means, there can be no progress out of the present predicament in the PNP unless the wound is treated and healed." Moyston goes on to say: "The future of politics belongs to the intelligent. The time is right to begin the conversation to restore the PNP to its former glory."
Is there some subtle or not-so-subtle hint of class warfare in the struggle for the leadership of the PNP? By saying the future of politics belongs to "the intelligent", wailing over "the retreat from ideas" and pleading for the restoration of the PNP to "its former glory", does that mean being led by intellectuals once more? And there are also some curious lines in Scree's column last week. He says early in his piece outlining the roots of the PNP's "crisis of leadership" that "from the outset, the party was deeply divided on the question of her (Portia's) capacity to lead the party".
Then, in his last paragraph, he says, interestingly, that "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". Historian Bertram knows of the history of middle-class leadership of the PNP (I can't wait to read his book on Norman Manley, which he is taking into Kingston for me this weekend). Is Portia seen as an interloper, an outsider in the intellectual boys' club? Is she the working-class leader of the PNP who has proven herself incapable of managing?
This could be a good propaganda point for Portia loyalist-in-chief Senator Lambert Brown to latch on to in saying that Portia is being penalised because of class prejudice, on top of gender bias. The PNP has many issues on the heels of its post-defeat annual conference.
It is facing local government elections deeply unsure about how it will mobilise funding after the campaign-finance scandal that has emerged. If donors can't be sure where their money will end up or in whose pocket, what will motivate them to give money to the PNP?
Beverley Manley told Cliff Hughes on his Power 106 talk show last Thursday morning that it would be a mistake to write off the PNP or think it won't rise again. She said there is still hope on the ground among Comrades and sometimes a movement "has to descend to ascend". She said, in effect, that the reports of the death of the PNP have been greatly exaggerated. The PNP lives. Michael might not be alive to stand up for his people, but his ex-wife is blowing the trumpet loudly and clearly.
The PNP is unable to get any traction in drawing attention to the rising crime and sliding dollar because it is too consumed with its internal crises, and the public does not see it as a viable alternative at this time.
The PNP will try to divert attention from itself at next Sunday's public session, but unless it deals decisively with its internal issues in its private sessions of conference, few people will be taking the party
president's address seriously. One of the things many will want to hear is her own timetable for departure. I think they are likely to hear this, and even some close aides might advise that course of action, though anyone who knows Portia knows that she is her own woman and can be quite stubborn.
What seems clear, though, is that her presidential opponent, Karl Blythe, has given her some help in the past week or so by his insensitive, totally inappropriate and uncalled-for remarks questioning her health "as a medical doctor". It was a blessing in disguise for Portia, conferring on her victim status, turning her into an underdog and eliciting sympathy from many, and circle-the-wagon response from Comrades. As the Sunday Observer lead pointed out last week, he is likely to be punished for those careless remarks, for which he had to apologise, no doubt sensing the blowback.
He overplayed his hand. He will still capture some of the votes of people who want to send a message to Sista P and people who support Peter Bunting, but he would have had more had he restrained himself. He might be a qualified medical doctor, but he certainly knows little about psychology. Peter Bunting, the businessman, can teach him a lesson or two. Peter Phillips, too. If I interpret Scree Bertram correctly, I have to disagree with him in any criticism of Bunting or Philips in their strategies to the PNP presidency. They are making exactly the right moves.
Scree says, "The crisis of leadership is no longer limited to the president," and then mentions that Bunting announced a campaign of renewal at the start of the year and then, after thunderous applause greeting the announcement of Peter Phillips as Portia's successor at a National Executive Council (NEC) meeting, Peter reconsidered any challenge. "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." They are all wise to do so.
When you have cult-like devotion to a leader like Portia, with fierce, bulldog loyalists around her, it is folly and suicide to set up yourself to be cast as disloyal, traitor, wolf in sheep clothing, etc, in the eyes of voting delegates. No matter what the articulate minority says or feels about Portia's mental state or intellectual capacity; no matter how many high-flying intellectual members of the parliamentary group are supportive of renewal and disdainful of her, the majority of delegates love and support her and have no incentive to push her to leave against her will. As pit bull Dayton Campbell puts it, him nah push Mama out a har yard.
Bunting is smart not to be cast as openly disrespectful to Mama P by wanting to push her aside. Delegates will hate him and he would stand no chance to challenge when Mama decides to leave and anoint beloved son, Peter P, as Man a Yard.
And Phillips is right, Scree, to play his Portia loyalty card to gain automatic approval from worshipful delegates. Blythe has nothing to lose and everything to gain by playing his stalking horse, proxy role. If Portia plays her cards right next Sunday by announcing her timetable for retirement and the party rolls out an impressive series of events to properly honour her and assess her contribution to the party and Jamaica, the renewal can, indeed, start.