People’s National Party’s (PNP) President, Peter Phillips (One PNP), held off a strong challenge for the leadership to defeat rival Peter Bunting (Rise United) by 1,427 (51%) votes to 1,351 (49%). Just.
PNP delegates spoke on Saturday (96% turnout) and quite clearly this is a hollow victory for Phillips. Although the signs earlier last week was that Bunting did have the delegate numbers sown up to defeat Phillips.
If after 2+ years as leader Phillips has managed to garner only 51% of the vote from his own comrades, how can he convince the wider public to win a general election?
In other countries if a sitting party political leader won a similar race by such a slim margin the leader would be quietly pressured to resign. As UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher did in 1990 following a leadership challenge.
Imagine, Bunting mounted his leadership campaign in June 2019, had zero support or endorsements from the senior figures in the party; yet he lost to Phillips by just 76 votes.
(In 2014, Andrew Holness defeated his leadership challenger Audley Shaw by 692 votes – 2,704 votes to 2,012)
Normally after a political leadership, party members come together, have their kumbaya and get ready for bigger battles on the national stage.
It has to be said that Bunting ran an aspirational, pragmatic and modern campaign that galavnised PNP supporters and appealed beyond the party. The messaging was progressive, dynamic and refreshing. Young people who had little interest in Jamaican politics were talking about Bunting’s Rise theme. Even some die hard JLP supporters were impressed with Bunting’s strategy.
On the other hand Phillips’ campaign was rather flat and littered with bitterness, envy and arrogance. It was so reminiscent of the 2016 PNP general election campaign for which Phillips was the campaign director.
If Phillips applies a similar campaign against the Andrew Holness-led JLP government at the next general elections, then the PNP might as well hold their position.
The victorious Phillips has promised to announce his new shadow cabinet in a fortnight’s time. But he has missed a real trick here.
Phillips should have announced his new shadow cabinet the day after the leadership race concluded. Such a move would have shown a rejuvenated leader who is decisive, well prepared and already moving forward. Surely Phillips must have decided upon the composition of the new shadow cabinet long before Saturday’s results.
It was back in April that Phillips told the party’s National Executive Council (NEC) that he will make changes to the shadow cabinet.
But this time Phillips needs to scale down to size of his shadow cabinet. He has ensure the most effective communicators are assigned to the most important roles. Phillips currently has up to 27 shadow spokespersons which is just too many mouths.
Dayton Campbell – Bunting’s campaign manager – was to me the star politician during the concluded leadership race. He communicates well and thinks on his feet when faced with tough questions from the media. For Campbell and his Rise United colleagues (such as Angela Brown-Burke, Fenton Ferguson and Mark Golding) to come this close to defeating Phillips was a remarkable achievement.
But elections have consequences and quite rightly Campbell tendered his resignation from the shadow health portfolio, which is bound to please minister Christopher Tufton. I gather all those shadow ministers who were in the Bunting camp have offered to relinquish their assigned portfolios.
Golding and Bunting have been solid contributors on the opposite benches and as members of numerous select committees. Golding as shadow finance spokesperson has chaired the powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) with aplomb. Surely a Phillips supporter would expect to replace Golding given the high profile nature and of both the PAC chair and finance spokesman roles.
In this current parliament, the top opposition performers who have kept the JLP government on their toes were mainly from Bunting and some his backers in the leadership. So if they all head to the back benches then the PNP and the wider Jamaica will be the loser.
Let’s be honest, Fitz Jackson – Phillips supporter/PNP chairman – looks out of his depth as shadow national security and has lacked the passion and vision needed for this pivotal portfolio.
Another Phillips supporter – Wykeham McNeil (one of the party’s 4 vice presidents) has shown maturity in shadowing the tourism portfolio in a non-partisan manner. He has chaired of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) competently. Deserves a move to a more meatier portfolio.
You would expect those other senior parliamentarians who backed Phillips to be promoted to top positions, including the likes of Phillip Paulwell (currently shadow energy), Damion Crawford (youth) and Mikael Phillips (transport). All 3 are VPs of the PNP and clearly have their own leadership aspirations.
Lisa Hanna currently shadows foreign affairs and trade but must be destined for a more significant portfolio to enhance her own chances of succeeding Phillips as leader one day.
Natalie Neita was the outstanding campaigner from the Phillips team. Will she stay as the shadow for sports?
The stellar shadow portfolios up for grabs could include finance, education, national security, health and environment.
But Campbell, Bunting and Golding would be wasted on the backbenches.
Jamaicans at all times expects the leader of the opposition to be politically astute, visible and inspiring beyond their political base. But since Phillips took on the role in 2017 he has not been that person to hold the government to account the way his predecessors have done in the past. He does need to beef up his inner circle with advisers who are steady, shrewd and dedicated to winning.
Phillips needs to move quickly to modernise the PNP’s outdated structures, procedures and its policies/messaging in order to appeal to the 50% of the electorate who have stayed away from the polls.
e.g. 4 vice presidents for a political party? Is that really necessary?
Since Bunting launched the leadership challenge in June the PNP has captured most of the local news coverage on the airwaves, social media and in the press. It has been relentless. Prior to June the PNP -especially Phillips- as a political force was hardly covered that much in media circles with the exception of soundbites from select committee hearings.
The PNP top brass and their key advisers will have to develop a strategy to maintain this level of media publicity going forward – for the right reasons.
2019 or 2020?
For now, the only way the JLP loses the next general election is if Andrew Holness and his colleagues get into a severe state of chronic complacency. That could happen. Thus the PNP must be so well prepared in order to capitalise on any howlers from the govt and push to inspire the wider electorate with their own plans.
If not, then comrades may have another PNP leadership race on their hands far sooner than they would envisage.