The PNP needs a new vision
This is the first in a two-part series.
As a columnist, I will never have a large following as far as readers go. I am out of step with how the media think, and for that matter, how most Jamaicans think. I say this in light of the positive coverage and support Dr Peter Phillips and his party received at the recently concluded annual party conference.
I thought the PNP policy positions were unimaginative and lacking growth drivers that can get the economy really moving. What was announced by the leader was a veiled rehash of the essential themes of democratic socialism and the reiteration of proclamations made over 40 years ago. Most of these did not work then, and what worked are no longer appropriate. Times have changed, and so have the costs of initiating and implementing many of these programmes.
The menu of land reform, mobilisation, free university education for the first child in the family, community development are ingredients of redistributive politics, patronage, and the politics of personal affection.
I am particularly disappointed with the PNP because Jamaica, more than ever, needs a strong Opposition with fresh ideas and energy to give the nation hope and to keep the Holness Government on its toes.
Here is the PNP that assumed it could not lose the last general election. Its leader, Portia Simpson Miller, said in a spontaneous interview prior to going to the polls, "Do I look like a loser to you?" They lost.
Here is a party that has traditionally dominated local government elections getting decimated in the last municipal election.
Here is the PNP that had on the drawing boards, or close to finalisation, all those projects for development now being undertaken by the JLP. These include the massive road construction and expansion currently taking place; the reopening of Alpart; the road expansion, realignment, and improvement at Barbican Square, and several of the hotel projects now under construction across the island. The JLP has assumed ownership of them in the sense of being the conceptualiser, the initiator, and the facilitator. While that is the reality of a seamless transition in democratic politics, the PNP just folded its wings and never sensitised the society sufficiently about the foundation it had laid.
Here is a party that has governed post-independence Jamaica for 31 of its 56 years, during which time it demonstrated weak corporate governance and decades of anaemic growth. I would have thought that after much introspection, it would conclude that it couldn't go down that path anymore. Therefore, it would have recalibrated its policy positions and programmes and be champing at the bit to share them with Jamaica, bringing the country alive with renewed hope.
Here is the PNP that installed a new leader, who, as finance minister in the previous government, had been credited with laying the foundation for a phased reduction of the country's debt and resetting its macroeconomic performance through economic reforms agreed to with the IMF. With that experience, combined with his intellect, new wisdom should have emerged for me to shout like Tiger Woods, "Yes!" while my raised forearm, with fist clenched, like Tiger's, rents the air in its descent.
Here is the PNP watching a new JLP administration faltering on so many fronts - from not getting the economy to record impressive growth, to an inability to institute best practices in governance, to ensuring ministerial accountability. The outcome, week by week, is a drip-drip of unsavoury news, even with bellwether organisations like Petrojam and UDC, which impact many areas of the economy.
Here is the PNP without a fraction of the money the JLP has available to run elections. Surely, party leaders must be aware that they need to change course as Tony Blair did when he was installed as leader of Britain's Labour Party in 1994.
His party wasn't convinced at the outset that tradition had to surrender to relevance and new ideas in some areas, but Blair knew he had to deliver a far more exciting platform to have national appeal, and he did what he had to do.
Except for guaranteed seats in garrison constituencies, the PNP has lost recent by-elections at both the local and national levels. What makes this particularly worrisome is that the JLP has widened its seat count in Parliament and has increased the margin of victory in contested constituencies.
What all this means is that the PNP must come alive with a new message, a new theme, a revised ideology, a new vision, a new strategy, a new direction. This will force the Holness Government to do better than it is doing at present once it is aware that a revitalised competitor is lurking in the wings.
Phillips and the other PNP leaders before him speak year after year at party conferences, espousing the wonders of land reform, including land titling. It is a politician's dream: it provides land to the landless; divvies up government land for the dispossessed; redresses the inequitable distribution of land; legitimises the rights of occupants to secure title, thereby giving them a chance to collateralise or monetise their asset; regularises captured land and illegal settlements, and when tied in with the National Housing Trust (NHT), it can ensure annual supply of residential units equivalent to the demand.
This is the elixir that the PNP can rightly claim as their own, as it was first mooted and developed by their founding father, Norman Manley; given national prominence by his son, Michael Manley; operationalised by P.J.; and in the area of land titling, given heightened public awareness by Portia Simpson Miller. Phillips, shortly after being elected party leader, established a National Land Ownership Commission
However, the JLP, not to be outdone, credits Edward Seaga as part conceptualiser, and now Holness is making a concerted push for his party to be identified with land reform.
But whoever runs with it, what does it matter! Land reform, as a national policy tool, has offered misguided hope and extremely disappointing results. After 70 years of promises and a plethora of plans and schemes, the numbers tell the story.
If we estimated that informally subdivided land accounts for five per cent of the available land without titles, this would mean that a total of 354,900 parcels of land do not have registered titles - a whopping 43 per cent. And this does not include the thousands of parcels of captured land nationwide housing illegal settlements, which are inhabited by nearly 30 per cent of the population, around 700,000 persons.
Next week, I will offer reasons why land reform, mobilisation, Phillips' current thinking about education and his continued emphasis on community involvement can't be major policy options for Jamaica's future growth and development.