Finally, with the rise of Peter David Phillips to the leadership of the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) in 10 days, new centers of influence on the body politic will be unleashed. Dr. Phillips will bring to the political ring a wide-ranging balance sheet of assets and liabilities. He’s certainly not new and different. Neither is he young nor fresh. He has baggage and too much weight for sure. But he has the requisite experience, ability, proven track record of achievements in statecraft and government, and a deep reservoir of goodwill among the moneyed and influential class.
He will quickly unite and set about reorganizing what’s left of the once much vaunted PNP organizational machine. But it will be an arduous uphill climb for him. The PNP brand is in shambles. Its reputation for incompetence and corruption will take a lot of work to erase. He will have to cultivate and hone very quickly the skills of a master butcher; cut while preserving unity in the party as he leads the rebuilding process.
He is inheriting a PNP that has lost the support of the majority of Jamaicans born after the party stormed back into power in February 1989, having been decimated by Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in October 1980. Those under 30-somethings grew up under the PNP’s uninterrupted near 20-year rule, when Dr. Phillips himself blossomed as an able and well-respected political lieutenant. Their disdain for what the PNP has come to represent while in power has driven many to the sidelines of the political process. While others are tentatively investing in Prime Minister Andrew Holness what little that’s left in their stomach for ‘dutty’ Jamaican politics.
The sticky and unpredictable wicket that Peter David Phillips is walking out to bat on is made worse by the fact that he has no time to get accustomed to the conditions as party and Opposition leader. His experience should serve him well in such circumstances. But, and there is a big but, at 67, Father Time is his constant companion. The reflexes begin to slow. The mental agility wanes. The adrenaline rushes become less frequent. Simply, the toll of time begins to speak loudly. And you are forced to listen.
He begins his tenure as leader engaged in a race against the clock. Time is against him. He’s at least 8 to 10 years late in fulfilling his destiny to be President of the PNP. The PNP is the bosom on which he was born on December 28, 1949. PNP politics is in his genes.
His grandfather was a parish councillor in that PNP bedrock of Manchester. It was the mid-island parish of Manchester that young Peter spent his early years living after being born in Kingston. He went to Moneague Primary School before winning a Common Entrance scholarship to Jamaica College in St. Andrew. His late father was the renowned Teacher Phillips, one of the pioneers of the nationalist movement of the 1930s that coalesced into giving the PNP its top and middle level leadership in 1938 and beyond.
He has a very deep understanding of the PNP’s foundations and historic mission to be one of the vanguards in the development of the ordinary Jamaican. He knows very well that the pursuit of politics is not about personal aggrandizement for those who lead and their cronies. But rather, creating opportunities for all to rise while enabling the economic foundations for quality education, health, infrastructure, the rule of law, order and justice.
One of the tough questions Dr. Phillips must be grappling with now is, do I throw everything I have at cutting short Holness’s one-seat majority Government? Or do I focus on rebuilding and rebranding the PNP into a viable and attractive alternative for the next 10 to 15 years? In some senses, he is located in a similar space where his political godfather, Michael Manley, was in the aftermath of the PNP’s devastating 1980 loss.
Manley took a hard, cold and long look at where the PNP was. It was shattered psychologically. It’s radical socio-economic and political agenda of democratic socialism was overwhelmingly rejected by the people. The party was split ideologically between the so-called moderates on the Right and the radicals on the Left, and the global geopolitical forces had swung to the right.
Market capitalism and the reign of globalization were the emerging order. Communism and socialism were in their death throes. Manley had to make a decisive choice. He decided to lead the PNP back to the centre.
What will Phillips do? After ten years of Portia Simpson Miller’s poor leadership, which saw the PNP’s moral authority as a political force decline and its usefulness as a vehicle for national development virtually captured by personal interests, he will have to fix the party first. He has to lead, internally and externally, a process of consultation on some key issues. Among them are:
- Almost two decades into the 21st century, what are the principles and objectives that must guide the work of the PNP as it seeks to win and maintain state power in a Jamaica beset by poor economic performance and serious social ills?
- As the country’s oldest political party, how does the PNP re-organize and re-engineer its structures to ensure honesty, transparency, and accountability so that its decision-making reflects the genuine will of the overwhelming majority of its members and supporters?
- Given the speed at which technology is impacting our daily lives and how we relate to each other individually and collectively, how will the PNP ensure that it embraces and keeps abreast of the changes, in its organization and structures, to ensure that the Jamaican people can benefit from the developments?
The process of renewal and rebuilding the PNP will be tricky for Dr. Phillips.
Enter Andrew Michael Holness. The Prime Minister is 44 years old. His mission is to be the first Prime Minister to have Jamaicans experience a prosperous life. He is of the utmost belief that prosperity is within reach in the next 10 to 15 years and that he is the man with the time and opportunity to deliver it. He is working hard to get it right for Jamaica.
Andrew Holness told me two weeks ago that Dr. Phillips represents nothing new and has always been his real opponent, and not the outgoing Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller. It was unmistakable (as the kids these days would say) shade. He was dismissive. Almost arrogant in his response to my question about what the rise of Peter Phillips to the top of the PNP would mean for him.
The Prime Minister has grown rapidly in the job over the last year. He is self-assured and in command of his Government. As PJ Patterson warned the PNP late last year, it’s a different Andrew Holness than the one who was battling for his political survival just over a year-and-a-half ago. I cannot wait to see the young, now confident Holness versus the older and wiser Phillips across the divide inside and outside Parliament. It will be bruising and tough, but I hope intellectually inspiring and substantive in policy thinking. Jamaica has been bereft for too long in Parliament of sharp and incisive debates over policy differences.
As I look forward to Dr. Phillips becoming PNP President, I am forced to look back over the last 10 years when on two occasions, 2006 and 2008, he was defeated by Mrs. Simpson Miller. Over those 10 years he accepted his defeat with class and remained steadfastly loyal to the PNP and Mrs. Simpson Miller.
He was the star performer in her Cabinet of 2012 to 2016. He pulled Jamaica back from the economic precipice of 2012/2013. He was the glue that kept the Simpson Miller Administration together. His performance was virtually the only platform on which they could credibly seek a second term in February 2016. And yet, despite being loyal and faithful, Simpson Miller could not find it within her to officially make him Deputy Prime Minister. He earned it.
As PNP Campaign Director in the general elections of 2016, he must take some of the blame for the party’s unexpected loss. His pre-occupation with Holness’s house backfired. He allowed certain things to just drift, all in the name of unity for the big prize to come after the expected victory. It’s his job to pick up the pieces now. But will he ever win the ultimate prize?
In a politics where rationality and critical thinking are scarce, certain attributes, however inconsequential, are extremely helpful. If you are a man, it is an asset if you are tall and good looking. In a word, handsome. And, it’s also a bonus if you are lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I cannot help but think that Dr. Phillips is an unlucky politician. Destined to be so near but yet so far from the crown.