Wed | Sep 18, 2019

Garnett Roper | The delegates will speak back

Published:Sunday | September 1, 2019 | 12:15 AM
Presidential challenger Peter Bunting shakes hands with a supporter at a meeting held at May Day High School in Manchester on June 9.
Garnett Roper
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On September 7 when the contest to elect the president of the PNP is held at the National Arena, delegates of the PNP will speak. But while they are at it, they may also speak back to those who have dared to speak for them.

Nationwide News Network has sought to get ahead of the curve by putting forward political commentators who say that Peter Phillips will win. One commentator says that Phillips will win because emotions will dominate. Another claims that sympathy for Phillips will be pivotal; and still another suggests that if this were a national poll, Bunting would win, but not with delegates of the PNP. What is remarkable is that none of the commentators has cited anecdotal conversations with delegates or opinion polls as the basis of their analysis. They are simply speaking for the delegates of the PNP without having spoken with the delegates of the PNP.

To be fair to these commentators, some of them might be taking into account what happened with Bruce Golding and the JLP in the mid- to late 1990s. Golding believed it was an imperative to challenge Edward Seaga as leader, but he was intimidated by the power of incumbency. So he left the JLP to form the NDM, only to return later to lead the Labourites.

It is one thing to remember history; it is another thing to turn history into precedent or paradigm. What is more likely to be the case, as often happens, is that political wishful thinking is masking itself as political analysis and prediction.

On the other hand, the Rise United campaign has dubbed September 7, which is also Peter Bunting’s birthday, as Freedom Day. They claim it will be a day of freedom from despair and from oppression. At least they are claiming this on the basis of the thorough canvass they have done and the work they have done on the ground.

The PNP, up to now, has had an unwritten tradition of its leaders retiring at age 70. Except for Norman Manley, who retired at age 76, Michael Manley, while the sitting prime minister, left the stage at 70. P.J. Patterson, as PM, retired at age 70. Portia Simpson Miller retired at age 70. Peter Phillips turns 70 this year.

Michael Manley, in the book edited by his widow, Glynne Manley, Truth Be Told (2019), rehearsed his decision to announce to the PNP NEC that the election he was to conduct in 1989 would be his last, and that he would retire within the first term as PM if the PNP were successful at the polls. He went on to share a lesson from his own experience in the 1980 elections, stating, inter alia, that “there is nothing, no mass affection and crowd frenzy could make me forget the fact that when the electorate is ready to turn around and spew you out, they do”.

A FUNNY PLACE

With all that history, the PNP now finds itself in a funny place with a leader who does not believe he should step aside at age 70. The pundits have said that in a leader-centric movement, the Comrades will ignore all of that, sentimentally saying that the leader should get a chance with the next general election, despite the empirical evidence that he would face certain and devastating defeat. However, I believe that on Saturday, September 7, 2019, the delegates will speak up for themselves, and they will have something else to say.

I have learnt in life never to assume that people have less intelligence than I do or that they are unable to determine what is in their interests and to make a choice in their best long-term interests. I have had the happy privilege over the last few weeks of speaking with dozens of PNP delegates who have shown themselves to be politically astute and eminently sensible. They know what they are doing.

I am intrigued by the choice of the campaign name and slogan ‘Rise United’ and ‘We Can Win’: They say what they are, what they want, and what their faith is. They are united, they intend for the movement to rise, and they believe that they can win. It is an easy sell because it is non-threatening and winsome.

There can be no doubt that the PNP has come to a most important juncture with this contest, which is likely to have a spillover effect on other political movements in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean. What is most fascinating about the Rise United movement is that its leader is self-effacing. It is not a movement dominated by the personality of its leader. Much of its paraphernalia does not even include its leader’s image or any reference to him.

With such an entrenched tradition of paternalistic messiahship that dominates Jamaica’s political landscape, a self-effacing Peter Bunting as leader would be a breath of fresh air.

As has been the case with PNP in three of the most recent elections it has faced (one general and two by-elections), the One PNP campaign has had trouble with messaging. Peter Phillips is a good candidate. His greatest discredit has been his inability to fire the imagination of the Comrades over the last two years as PNP leader and also his two stinging by-election defeats in South East St Mary and East Portland. The defeat of the PNP in the East Portland by-election under the watch of Phillips has been a body blow, if not a knockout punch.

The One PNP campaign itself has scored some own goals. The misspeak by the two vice-presidents, Damion Crawford and Mikael Phillips, for which they have faced public backlash, has not helped the campaign. And worst of all, the incident in Gordon Town, of the refreshments stolen by a presumed One PNP operative to prevent a Rise United meeting from being held, is a throwback to some of the worst things associated with JLP internal contests of the past with which the PNP has not hitherto been associated.

In this contest, the PNP is confronted not so much with its past, but with its future. As a movement, it must find a way to take care of its own.

Peter Bunting was asked what lesson he has learned over these last three months as he crisscrossed the island campaigning and meeting delegates. He said he more clearly understood the chasm between national statistics and people’s reality. People are not making ends meet; they are struggling hard in this country. And among those struggling more than most are party workers who have given their best years in the service of the political movements.

Bunting and lifelong business partner Mark Golding have proposed an endowment fund and self-development seminars for party workers as part of the future. Bunting has also promised to modernise the party organisation and communication and to transform the party in order to transform the nation. It has not been as clear what is the vision of the One PNP Peter Phillips campaign, which has been stuck in a defensive and self-justifying mode.

I do not think that Saturday’s election will be about sentiment, sympathy, or emotion. It will be about a proud and self-conscious movement, with its history of pushing and prodding the society to better itself, being roused from its slumber to stand on its feet again.

The better organisation will win, the better messaging will win, and the campaign that mobilises the will of the people, especially the delegates, will win. This contest will be about the PNP seizing the momentum to give itself the best chance to successfully contest the next general election.

- Garnett Roper is president of the Jamaica Theological Seminary. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.