Portia Must Go
That the People’s National Party (PNP) has historically shown itself skilled at mobilizing, organizing and electioneering is not an idea any serious political observer would question. After all, this is the same political movement which condemned the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to the indignity of opposition, not once or twice, but on a record three consecutive occasions. When the JLP did finally wrest political power from the orange clad lot, that party would rebound to defy pollsters, pundits and predictions, returning to government in spectacular style.
That is the PNP Jamaica has known over the party’s seventy plus year history: organized, mobilized and settled. Always ready for an election. And yet over the last year and a half, a different image has emerged. We’ve witnessed old party wounds being ripped open, loyalties shifting, the private being made public, massive road blocks, and most importantly, an absolute collapse in the leadership and management of the governing party. In short, we’ve been witnessing the undoing of the People’s National Party.
The Burke Disaster
Not surprisingly, the party’s problems start and end with Mrs. Portia Simpson Miller. In the first instance, the problem finds root in her judgement, specifically her decision to throw support behind Paul Burke as the party’s General Secretary. As it turns out, Mr. Burke has been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
We’ve known for sometime now that Mrs. Simpson Miller is challenged in offering strong and studied leadership. By itself, that is not problematic. Weak men and women who have ascended to leadership often have powerful deputies who hold the fort, as it were, while their leaders smile and wave. Burke was no doubt entrusted with this critical deputizing role, Phillips manning the Cabinet, and Burke piloting the party. Simpson Miller would be free to be the titular head of government. But then Mr. Burke let the team down.
As the fabric of the People’s National Party became undone, Paul Burke showed a particular proclivity for obfuscation. His head-in-the-sand policy did little to address the myriad issues simmering from all across the island in a host of PNP constituency organizations. Instead of facing these issues head on, the embattled General Secretary repeatedly tried to pull wool over our eyes, deflecting inquiries by the national media, and downplaying the severity of the threat to the governance of the governing party. Mr. Burke opted for a position of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Quite literally, Burke was fiddling while the PNP burned.
For her part, Mrs. Simpson Miller could only offer muted threats in private, the majority of which went unheeded. Damion Crawford’s recent social media taunt against Paul Burke is evidence of that. The beginning of the unraveling of what was once considered a controlled party begins, therefore, with the thread that is Paul Burke. A thread that runs straight through the last year and a half of turmoil.
Rise of the Delegates
But what accounts for this about turn in the mood and mentality of the PNP? After all, this is the party that is rumored to be masters of keeping it inside. My own view is that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bears the blame. You see, when Dr. Peter Phillips set out to right the wrongs his party had done to the Jamaican economy, he was forced to sharply curtail the system of partisan political patronage which had so flourished under his PNP predecessor, Dr. Omar Davies. Hemmed in by an IMF agreement, Dr. Phillips found there was no where left to “run with it”; the doling out of scarce benefits and spoils was now decidedly more complicated. Political surrogates, activists and organizers were no doubt miffed at this development; no more wholesale handouts, a sharp decline in what was available in the kitty to facilitate larger than life political cronies who had thrived under the decadence of the previous system. Under the new dispensation, every mickle was needed to make that muckle. Legislators now had to prioritize who got what, and when.
This scarcity saw powerful delegates and constituency leaders rising up to mount unprecedented challenges against a Cabinet Minister, first term superstars and even the sitting Attorney General. Without the largesse of patronage, Members of Parliament sitting in the government benches began finding it difficult to commandeer their political surrogates. Delegates suddenly began complaining in great numbers of the “arrogance” of their young leaders, a complaint which I believe is firmly based in anger at the ever decreasing spoils in the various constituencies. If one no longer wielded the means to maintain political power, a challenge was all but certain. The PNP is still being ripped apart by the shockwaves of these challenges. See North East St. Elizabeth.
The Dissent of the Second Tier
Another thread which has been unraveling is the unwillingness of the next generation of comrades to hold their tongue. As Mrs. Simpson Miller’s leadership grows ever more feeble, the likes of Damion Crawford, Raymond Pryce, Dayton Campbell, Venesha Phillips, Kari Douglas et al. have refused to keep silent. Frequently admonishing their party or their party colleagues on a whole host of issues, social media being their preferred medium. This second tier dissent really came to a climax when party Vice President, wife of General Secretary Burke and Mayor of Kingston, Dr. Angella Brown Burke, was drawn into a social media spat with Damion Crawford, a State Minister.
That a Vice President and a State a Minister could display this conduct highlights the extent to which the dissenting voices have grown loud. Not even a decision by the party executive, led by the Prime Minister, could silence them. Had there been guidance and direction for these youngsters, this may not have happened. But this is not the PNP of old, this is a party coming apart at the seams. It almost renders Mrs. Simpson Miller a lame duck leader. Without guidance for its emerging generation of leaders, how can the PNP not fall apart? But then, who would blame the bright, energetic, youthfully exuberant, second tier from rising up and filling the void left by Mrs. Simpson Miller’s absenteeism? Nature abhors a vacuum, it would seem the PNP does too.
Portia Must Go
Finally, I believe the People’s National Party is acutely aware that in a very short period it will enter into a transition phase, the reign of Mrs. Simpson Miller will come to and end and a new leader must be found. With that realization in mind, I believe everyone is jostling for power and position. Mrs. Simpson Miller’s lame duck status is further illustrated here, the guard is changing and no one has told the Queen. Mrs. Simpson Miller must begin a period of deep introspection and accept that she is no longer the right leader for the job. She must accept that time come.
History will be kind and accord her praise for her administration’s successful implementation of the IMF programme, that will be her legacy. It’s one she should protect; remaining as PNP President risks tarnishing that. Otherwise, she may go down in history as the leader who brought Manley’s party into decline, that would be a real tragedy. The question now is, can an unraveling PNP overcome the disability imposed by the leadership of Simpson Miller and Burke and win a General Election?
That remains to be seen.