Source: Jamaica Gleaner
Internal campaigns have planted seeds of political division in the People’s National Party (PNP), leaving it badly damaged since 1992, but the temperature has risen exponentially in leadership races since, according to the party’s longest-serving but now retired chairman, Robert Pickersgill.
The ‘Chairman for Life’, as he was affectionately called, said the task of unifying the party after yesterday’s latest presidential election is not Herculean, but it will require “significant effort” between the winner and loser and their respective supporters.
“Unity has to be the first order of business for the party. It is going to take the efforts of everyone to unify the PNP, which has been eroded by too many campaigns of vitriol and words that it has come to regret. I warned everyone in the 2005 campaign to be careful how they referred to each other. Some deeply hurtful things were said, especially about Portia [Simpson Miller] and it has been haunting the party ever since,” Pickersgill told The Sunday Gleaner.
Pickersgill, who served nearly three decades as chairman, said he had to referee many squabbles in the lead-up to the 2005 presidential election, which Simpson Miller won. The other contestants then were Dr Omar Davies, Dr Peter Phillips and Dr Karl Blythe.
Davies and Phillips went on to serve in Simpson Miller’s 2011-2016 administration, as Blythe retired.
“I am not going to call any names, but it was not so long ago there was a very bitter campaign that many will remember. It left such a bad taste in the mouths of many Comrades. Many of the persons involved were persons who should have known better. So it’s a case of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind,” said Pickersgill.
Simpson Miller’s lack of “respected academic achievements” was used against her in the campaign, and Pickersgill recalled how Roger Clarke said Portia had a PhD and it meant that “Portia had delegates”.
Clarke proved to be prophetic as she successfully defended her leadership in another contest in 2008 when she was challenged by Phillips.
Pickersgill said he was tasked with helping to rebuild the walls that were broken after the Patterson victory. For many years, his home became a gathering place for Comrades, with annual Christmas parties hosted to help bring people together.
But other party members also recounted the contest between the late Michael Manley and Vivian Blake to succeed the party’s first president, Norman Manley, in 1969, as a bitter one, with Blake leaving the party after the loss.
However, they cite the 2005 contest to find a successor to P. J. Patterson, the 2008 and 2019 challenges as being the worst internal contests the party has ever seen.
Patterson had defeated Simpson Miller in the election to succeed Michael Manley.
“The good thing about that was that Comrade P. J. Patterson extended the hand to Portia and she accepted that hand. It is, therefore, important what the winner does and what the leader does after the elections,” the retired chairman said.
Pickersgill said that, except for Patterson, he is the only person to have witnessed first-hand the pain which the party has endured from bruising leadership contests, as the wounds take years to heal.
Yesterday, St Andrew South West Member of Parliament (MP) Mark Golding and St Ann South East MP Lisa Hanna faced off in the latest leadership contest to replace Phillips, who received the leadership by acclamation in 2017 and staved off former Manchester Central MP Peter Bunting’s challenge in 2019.
Both campaigns and supporters last year engaged in vitriolic attacks inside and outside the party, which were partly blamed for the 49-13 hammering the PNP received at the polls in September, as the wounds failed to heal.
That loss, as well as Phillips’ cancer diagnosis early in the year, led to his decision to step away from the party’s leadership and as leader of the Opposition.
Pickersgill backed Golding in yesterday’s contest, saying that he believed the “party needs Golding at this time”.
Another retired politician, K.D. Knight, had endorsed Hanna, while PNP stalwart A. J. Nicholson, also retired, backed Golding.
“So the first order of business for the new party leader is to rebuild unity in the PNP. That leader has to get everyone on board, and get their buy-in. For this is not a one-person show. Everybody will have to join hands. Unity has to be an agenda item, and remain so until it is achieved,” this according to Pickersgill.
Gleaner columnist Peter Espeut agrees that unity is the major hurdle for the new leader, but was not optimistic that it would be realised any time soon.
“Those persons who have been emotionally supporting the party over the last 50 years [did so because of] their vision for equality, peace and justice,” said Espeut.
He added that the literati of the 1930s to 1950s also supported the party because of its ideology, which would today be called leftist. As time went on, however, “not even PNP people had that vision anymore”.
Phillips, he said, held that vision and tried to say the PNP should go back to being socialist, but the right-wing element in the party railed against it.
“The party had more support when it was leftist and ideological. What they need is someone with an ideology who can capture the vision of the founding fathers. I don’t know if either Mark Golding or Lisa Hanna has any ideology in their heads. I frankly don’t think this race will settle anything. Whoever wins, the party will still not have a groundation,” Espeut said.
“So unity has got to be the mantra, but unity around what? It can no longer be around individuals, it has to be around an ideology. What that ideology is, I don’t know.”
Trade unionist and political commentator Helene Davis-Whyte also believes the PNP has a huge unity deficit.
“I think, first and foremost, the new leader has to discuss the disunity, and I think, therefore, the first action has to be to reach out to whoever is the losing candidate and their supporters and try to forge some kind of path that will allow them to become involved, and not like what has happened in the past,” she posited.
Many of Bunting’s chief backers were sidelined following Phillips’ win. Several, including Bunting himself, also lost their seats in the general election, with reports of underfunding of their constituencies being part of the clapback, the now caretakers say.
“Any attempts to sideline the losers will get them nowhere. The many reports that have been done have told them that disunity must be addressed. It must be modernised, and the constitution must be revised to meet the needs of today’s political demands,” Davis-Whyte suggested.
“I don’t think they have to reinvent the wheel to tell them what is to be done. It’s more difficult for parties to unite in opposition, and you would think that the opposite is true. That is why concerted efforts have to be made to unify the party.”
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