Ian Boyne | Why Bunting couldn’t ‘test’
Peter Bunting's surprise move to withdraw from going up against Peter Phillips for the presidency of the Peoples National Party (PNP) demonstrates why he possesses the maturity, temperament and political sagacity to be the next leader of the PNP - after Peter Phillips.
The Observer called his move one of "political genius", while others call it cowardice, gutlessness and betrayal. Both perspectives miss the point. Bunting's move was purely commonsensical, though he still has to be commended for it because politicians are known to frequently take leave of common sense in making decisions. Bunting could have gone ahead and tarnish his spotless political record of winning contests, but I told you last week that the man is up on his reading in Eastern philosophy. He, no doubt, has studied Sun Tzu's classic, The Art of War. Bunting is nothing if not a man of keen calculation and strategy. That's how he made his multiple millions, and that's how he could have toppled a veteran politician like former Prime Minister Hugh Shearer.
Bunting moved in one week from a man set to challenge Peter Phillips for control of the PNP to one saying rather bluntly that he had absolutely no chance of beating him, and that attempting to do so would be "irresponsible" and would simply "divert our focus and energy at this time". Then he moved on to ace journalist Cliff Hughes' studio to tell him what a great ideas man and intellectual Peter Phillips is and that he is the right man to give vision to the 78-year-old party and to resuscitate the ideas of Norman and Michael Manley. Yuh think Bunting easy!
People who don't understand the peculiar culture of the PNP might be stunned or deeply disappointed with Bunting's decision not to test the other Peter. But Bunting has been in the party long enough to know its culture. When he told you that the parliamentary group, the local government leadership and other delegates felt it was "Peter Phillips turn", he was telling you a lot about his party. Whether you want to call it undemocratic or, like The Gleaner editorial writer, see it as a view of "accession (not) based on competence, vision ... ", that's just your not understanding PNP culture.
As charismatic, grass-roots and well-loved as Portia was when she challenged P.J. for the leadership of the party after Michael Manley, the delegates rejected her. They felt it was not her turn or time. It was P.J.'s time. When they felt it was Portia's time, as much as Peter was the intellectual stalwart and strong party man, it was Portia's time. Peter tried again and the PNP delegates felt it was still not his time as Sista P had not done her time. That's how PNP politics works. There is this sense that people must pay their dues, and when they have done so, they must get their full deserts. It is now Peter Phillips' time, and no man (or woman) dare test him at this time.
Bunting was very open and honest with us. While he had "the conviction that it was time for the next generation of leadership to refresh the image of the party and help to attract a broader base of support, particularly among younger voters", he had to contend with party tradition of timing. He disclosed that "I have held a series of consultations with the parliamentary and local government leadership and have concluded that a large majority feels that it is Comrade Peter Phillips' turn".
BUNTING THE PRAGMATIST
Bunting went on to say quite clearly that he is not paying homage to this culture. In fact, he forthrightly dissociates himself from it. But he understands the art of war and he is a pragmatist. Politics is the art of the possible. Bunting is no idealist. In an explicit criticism of his party's culture, he expressed his own belief that "political parties are national organisations, and I believe that leadership decisions should be made on a wider set of considerations".
But Bunting is no fool. No sense kicking against the prick, if you want to be leader. Go with the game now, show loyalty to Phillips, get to work closely with him (as he told Cliff Hughes, he has been assured by the favoured Peter) and wait your turn. The delegates will reward his stepping back and allowing unity in the party. They will feel in another few years that it is Bunting's time. Bunting would have nothing to gain by further splitting the party, opening it up to Andrew's possibly exploiting that by calling a snap election and winning, putting the PNP out to pasture, with the wrath of Comrades on Bunting's head. That would only lead to Paulwell or Julian Robinson having their time ahead of him.
Bunting says you can think anything you want and call me a coward, traitor, big 'fraid or anything. (He has a Buddhist calmness about him.) He knows his game plan. Bunting's support will be important to Phillips. He has money, connections, middle-class appeal, political savvy and organisational skills, which Phillips needs in going up against a formidable Andrew Holness. Bunting is a significant asset to Philips and the PNP. He is not as expendable as Lisa Hanna, though, I think, Phillips will find a place for her, knowing her appeal beyond the PNP.
But apart from Bunting coming up against PNP culture and tradition, there is another major roadblock that he faced, and this figured prominently in his wise decision not to challenge Phillips: Bunting has been badly damaged by Portia loyalists who have painted him as totally disloyal to the leader and saying bad things about her. Some have charged that Bunting has utilised people to smear the leader. There are certain Comrades who have been vulgar and exceedingly disrespectful to Portia on social media, and it is said that they are in Bunting's camp.
Those supportive of Portia resent what they feel he has been up to. As I pointed out last week, if you want to become president of the PNP, you can't diss Portia - or be so perceived. A major advantage Peter Phillips has, quite apart from his commanding intellect, ministerial and political experience and pedigree as a long-time Comrade and social activist, is his standing by Portia's side and refusal to challenge her. Phillips knows the enormous benefit of that to his leadership ambition. Phillips might well have the same reservations about Portia that Bunting and Lisa have, but he knows it would be suicidal for him to make that obvious.
BRILLIANT CHESS GAME
Phillips has been playing his cards right, just as Bunting has been. Two political masterminds at work. Brilliant chess game. Both are emerging winners. Time is on Bunting's side. Phillips is not a youth, and if Holness thrashes him in the next election, the delegates will certainly be looking away from Phillips and very likely in Bunting's direction.
The perception that Lisa was a surrogate for Bunting has hurt him in the party. That Portia has now set her deadline, with many Comrades feeling that she was pushed, there is no way in hell they would reward anyone remotely associated with that push. Bunting's goose was cooked. His best chance was to seek the favour of Portia's anointed, grow in influence in the post-Portia PNP as Phillips is not likely to punish him for any act of disloyalty to Portia.
Phillips has a lot to gain within the party and nationally by showing himself as a magnanimous, forgiving, inclusive party leader. Drawing on Bunting and Lisa can only benefit Phillips. What is clear is that the JLP would much prefer if Portia had not given her timeline and that the PNP had continued its bloodletting. The PNP is in a much better position today than it was two weeks ago and much, much better than last week. Phillips will galvanise the party, and with Bunting's and other disaffected Comrades' being energised, they will pose a stronger challenge to the JLP.
But they must never underestimate Andrew Holness. They must not make the mistake of Andrew's parliamentary colleagues whom I was telling over and over that they did not understand the man's leadership acumen, maturity and level-five humility. Even a Peter Phillips-led PNP will find Andrew Holness hard to beat. Phillips is no longer an ideologue and so his intellectual moorings are of little benefit in any contest with Andrew.
Phillips has bought into neo-liberal economics, which Andrew shares with him. Just that Andrew might be a little more socialist than Phillips is today. Can Phillips appeal to the demographics and the publics which find Andrew appealing? Why would the capitalist class abandon Andrew for Phillips? Would civil society warm to Phillips over Andrew, and why? These are questions for future exploration.
- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.