Tue | Dec 7, 2021

PNP has lost its way, insiders and critics agree - Outdated machinery, lack of vision and funding crisis killed party’s chances at the polls

Published:Sunday | September 6, 2020 | 12:22 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer

Howard Mitchell
Howard Mitchell

Days after suffering its most humiliating defeat since the 1980 general election, the political post-mortem is being conducted in the People’s National Party (PNP) and losing candidates, operatives and workers have exposed raw wounds, many of which they believe may not heal any time soon.

Thursday’s defeat has all but ended the 40-year political and governance career of its leader, Dr Peter Phillips, who announced that he would also be stepping away from the role of Opposition leader as soon as a successor is identified. His future as member of parliament for St Andrew East Central, however, is not yet decided.

On Friday, a grieving Comrade, who asked not to be identified, said the election loss not only claimed “casualties of its glorious past, but drowned many with youth, talent and experience who were and are still needed to be part of the rebuilding process”.

The party operative said there was more blame than “a full Mona reservoir” to go around in the party and everyone should take a full glass.

“Everybody got swept away in a tide of anti-PNP sea, which was obvious for a long time. This goes back to the last term of Prime Minister P.J. Patterson’s tenure. The party has not modernised its machinery. What it has done is changed people, changed leaders, but not much else,” said the insider. “A big part of that change is done through funding. The PNP has not attracted funding for years. You cannot do anything in politics without cash.”

A review of the loss, he said, is a waste of time.

“There is no need for any review. The party knows what was wrong, but couldn’t do anything about it because it lacked the machinery and personnel to make the changes needed. Individuals were being replaced as painless as possible, but the party was operating a wooden political saw instead of a mechanical one and it got minced in the process,” he said.

The party’s treasury, he said was virtually empty, and many candidates were unable to raise funds for their campaigns. The COVID-19 outbreak also dealt a devastating blow to fundraising efforts and many large businesses did not contribute to the party’s coffers.

Party not sure what it stands for

Howard Mitchell is the former president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, public commentator and chairman of the Jamaica Accountability Portal – a watchdog group for integrity in the governance process.

He told The Sunday Gleaner that the PNP appears lost, becoming an unknown version of itself.

“PNP people know their party’s history as one of nation and institution building, independence and social justice, empowering and celebrating individuals. What went wrong is that the party lost its message. It has lost its roots and identity. And I am very sorry, I have not heard anyone in the last four years identify with any facet or part of what the party stood for,” Mitchell said.

He added that the PNP must decide whether it will seek to identify with its roots, modernise and upgrade it to the 21st century or start anew with a different concept.

It was instructive, Mitchell said, that the party’s popular vote in 2016 general election was 433,735. Four years later, it fell to 305,157 as it lost 15 seats. For him, it was the clearest evidence of the political drought which has beset the party and left it without growth. The PNP, he said, appears to have become what the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was under its former leader Edward Seaga – unwinnable and unattractive to even its own.

“The PNP needs to redefine itself. It didn’t have a message for the elections, and to the extent that it did, I was disgusted by it. Why do I need anyone to pay my light and water bills? What I need is the means to pay those bills. Give people jobs so they do not become dependent on anyone or a state,” stated Mitchell.

The PNP, seemingly searching for an equivalent to the JLP’s promise of no taxes on incomes up to $1.5 million per annum made in the 2016 election campaign, offered $4,000 monthly to cover electricity and water bills for some account holders.

“I have to say the entire leadership of the party is at fault. I cannot find one who is not to blame. There were those who acted individually and others who did not know what they doing,” he stated.

Mitchell believes there was clear disunity since last September’s leadership contest in which Phillips defeated Peter Bunting by 76 votes. He said it was clear that internal mechanisms for settling leadership disputes in the PNP that have existed and worked in the past were clearly eroded “and failed in the last two years”.

“This clearly indicates that they are not modern. The organisation and discipline in the party have broken down. The PNP of Norman Manley prized integrity, among everything else. It prized internal discipline, democracy and cohesions,” Mitchell stated.

Writing was on the wall

A party worker admitted yesterday that disunity was rampant in the PNP and recalled that “every PNP leader said a disunited PNP cannot win anything”.

Disclosing that he supported the losing effort of Peter Bunting for the leadership, he said, “If Bunting had won last year, we expected that the elections would have been close. But this blowout was totally unexpected.”

Environmentalist and public commentator Peter Espeut said he expected a JLP win, but in the low to mid 40 seats. He noted that traditionally results such as those seen last week are won on first-term elections and a reducing majority on second term.

“The JLP’s second term 49-14 win has gone against that tradition, where they scraped the first term, and [saw a] landslide the second term,” Espeut told The Sunday Gleaner. “But Peter Phillips was selfish. The evidence must have been very clear to him that he was unable to take the PNP to a general election win. This election was not lost on Thursday.”

The JLP, he suggested, targeted Westmoreland for a foothold on constituencies which have been held by the PNP since 1989. That successful targeting took down Dr Wykeham McNeill, who Espeut said said has done yeoman service for the party at the parliamentary committee levels for years. That kind of experience, he said, would be missed as well as that of Bunting, who has displayed parliamentary preparedness and sound interventions in the Lower House.

“The week after Phillips was acclaimed PNP leader in 2017, I wrote in my column that he would be the first leader of a major political party in Jamaica not to become prime minister. That has now evident. So one possible solution to the leadership crisis is that Phillips would resign and Bunting gets his seat and becomes party leader. Phillip Paulwell cannot become anything because he does not have a visa. So they have to look elsewhere,” suggested Espeut.

He said the high casualty list was making it difficult for the PNP to find individuals of stature to be part of the transition and restructuring.

Both Espeut and Mitchell said the disengagement of nearly two-thirds of the voting population must send a loud warning to both parties of the growing threat to democracy caused by voter apathy.