Absence of structure plagues political rookies
Dr Christopher Tufton, Contributor
In the lead-up to the People's National Party's (PNP) 74th conference, Chairman Robert Pickersgill described the then upcoming gathering as a "celebratory and thank-you" event. After two election victories against the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), this conference, he implied, would be used to celebrate a PNP re-election to the reins of government.
General Secretary Peter Bunting, at the same event, seemed to have been anxious to temper that sentiment when he suggested that the opportunity would be used to discuss Jamaica's economic challenges. Bunting seemed to have been more in touch with the mood of the country and his party delegates.
Those who attended tried to make the best of it, but one could not describe this year's conference as overwhelming in terms of attendance and festivities. Watching the event unfold through the electronic media did not stimulate confidence, even as speakers attempted to rally the troops.
The general consensus on the main event, the party leader's speech, is that it lacked specifics. More so, Portia's speech, according to some pundits, lacked the customary passion that she is known to possess and used effectively in the past.
A dominant theme of this year's conference was the extent to which senior leaders of the party hierarchy, including vice-presidents, left the stage for public pronouncements to be made by first-timers. This was significant and may be an attempt by that party to demonstrate depth for renewal and transition when that time comes.
It may also have been an attempt to expose and offer training for first-timers who were swept into the role of elected constituency representatives, and placed frontally with challenges and expectations of demanding constituents. More cynically, the parading of these inexperienced MPs and future prospects could have just been an attempt at camouflaging the turbulence that is brewing between a number of rookies and their constituents.
Whatever the case, the issue of political best practices for individuals who offer themselves for public office is showing glaring deficiencies with recent unfolding events, and the PNP must be concerned that this could threaten its recently achieved electoral mandate.
MISSING THE POINT
Portia missed the opportunity to sound the alarm and offer guidance on this issue. Instead, she spoke braggingly about her backbenchers and their capacity to ensure continuity. For the delegates in a number of these seats, Lloyd B. Smith in Central St James perhaps being the chief offender, the leaders' pronouncements on her new MPs would not have instilled confidence. Here, Portia seemed out of touch with the sentiments on the ground, choosing instead to believe in rhetoric.
Perhaps the party leader left that admission and attempt at correction to her predecessor P.J. Patterson, who was more forthright in his call for MPs to spend more time with their constituents. Here, Patterson read the mood of the delegates and the constituents correctly.
For a number of reasons, Comrades are pleased to be in power but that opportunity has not translated to happiness nearly nine months on. For the most part, the economic realities of their personal experiences are not positive, no different from that of the general populace.
Meanwhile, there is a sense that the situation is being made worse because first-time MPs are missing in action or arrogant in providing representation to their base supporters and constituents in general. This has exposed a lack of experience on the part of these first-timers and the party's apparent failure to prepare them.
In the lead-up to the conference, public frustration has been expressed by constituents about a number of these MPs, including André Hylton, Damion Crawford and Lloyd B. Smith.
Lloyd B. will be remembered not just for his pants-falling incident at his swearing in, and his attempt to incorrectly evict J.C. Hutchinson from a parliamentary sitting, but also for abandoning his delegates by deciding not to attend the party conference, or supporting delegates with resources to attend. His delegates did not hold back in expressing frustration at the conference grounds.
Damion Crawford's attempt at building out his noble vision for education in his seat has been ripe with controversy, as he is being accused of being dictatorial in his approach to the implementation of policy. There is a sense that despite those who may be greedy and routinely made unrealistic demands, Damion's youthful exuberance and inexperience have got him into hot water with delegates and local representatives who have been around longer than he has and have felt disrespected by his approach, if not his motive.
André Hylton, some of his constituents claim, is missing in action, despite his pronouncements on Vernon Derby's 'At Your Service' Nationwide radio programme that he is always available at his office, or by phone, Facebook or Twitter.
CONSEQUENCE OF DISTANCE
Constituents' dissatisfaction cannot be fixed by conference appearances or energetic podium presentations, a dilemma which Lloyd B. seems to appreciate, even if not attempting to fix. This is a serious dilemma for the governing party, which is facing an economic future with likely IMF conditionalities harshest on living standards in communities.
That requires effective communication by agents of the party, critically facilitated by good working relationships between MPs and the party faithful.
So who will promote the justification of the harsh realities of the economic times under this administration if there is vexation between the MP and party delegates and workers? And who will explain, on behalf of the party, to neighbours and friends, that roads can't be fixed and schools repaired because of debt and fiscal deficit restraint?
It is no secret that Jamaica faces an economic dilemma. The long road to recovery requires sound economic management and an equally important communication strategy that is effective and filters through to the grass roots.
The direction of the Government is still unclear, given no International Monetary Fund agreement and the communication strategy has failed to date.
All this brings into sharp focus a need for those who offer themselves for political office to be given a more structured guidance for an appreciation of political representation in Jamaica's current political culture, and possible approaches to changing that culture. An MP is normally called on to be everything to everyone, particularly those constituents who feel that they are responsible for that candidate's election. In the context of limited resources, this is impossible to deal with.
Those who argue that it is the politics of patronage that has led us to this point, and political parties in Jamaica today must share the blame and take responsibility for fixing it, would have a point. Tribal politics and the discrimination; the allocation of scarce benefits; and the posturing of political leaders as messianic personalities capable of fixing all our problems have bred a dependency syndrome that runs contrary to a meritocracy, where people are encouraged to link rewards to value-creating effort.
We may be at the tipping point, where economic mismanagement over the years has led to perennial debt and very few resources for political patronage to satisfy the appetite of those who have grown to expect it - whether for genuine reasons, outright greed, or a feeling of entitlement.
Only transformational leadership can change this culture. It is in this context that first-time MPs are finding it difficult to cope. The lack of preparation and guidance to these personalities will ensure these first-timers will become one-termers.
But the PNP is not unique in this context, as the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has seen its fair share of one-termers, including me.
The last general election saw attractive new entrants to the political field representing both parties. Both the PNP and JLP should see this as an opportunity for renewal and cultural political change. The PNP first-timers had better success in the election, but the JLP newbies were equally impressive in terms of credentials and commitment, even though they were overwhelmingly unsuccessful.
Political parties must see first-timers as an opportunity for an investment in the party and the country's future. Win or lose, both parties should view these rookies as critical to renewal.
Dr Christopher Tufton is opposition senator and spokesman on foreign affairs, foreign trade and investment and co-executive director of think tank CaPRI. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.