By Hume Johnson, PhD
With its defeat at the 2016 polls, the time is apt for the People’s National Party (PNP) to review and revise its approach, not just to electioneering but also to governance. The current dilemma confronting political organisations large and small is how to remake themselves and remain relevant in changing times. For the People’s National Party to remain viable and relevant in changing times, it has to be extremely concerned with its image perception and brand quality among its voting publics, and more so among those not convinced of its legitimacy. The failure or success of any political party is increasingly tied to its brand quality – how it positions itself in the electoral market place, how it is seen and perceived by voters; and the quality of its leadership and policies. The key elements of a political party brand – the party, its leader and key policies – are highly interrelated in the minds and memory of voters. The credibility and personality of its leaders, and the party’s perceived integrity and credibility in fulfilling its promises are key elements which will directly impact on citizen-voters overall assessment of a political party and how they will vote at an election. How do Jamaican citizens perceive the PNP?
Current Perceptions of the PNP
There is a troubling perception among the Jamaican citizenry that the brand image of the People’s National Party has undergone a decisive and unwelcomed shift in posture from its early socialist beginnings. Conceived in September 1938, only months after the historic Labour rebellion – in which the Jamaican working classes sought improved working conditions, wages and a better way of life – the People’s National Party was well positioned to be, as its name suggests, the ‘people’s party’. For the next several decades, the PNP actively manifested this people-centred politics by consistently and historically introduceing policies that are responsive the needs of the poor, premised on principles of equity and social justice. These principles continue to resonate deeply with Jamaican voters.
Yet, current perceptions of the PNP are unenthusiastic. Many citizens believe the PNP is distant, disconnected, arrogant, and not overly concerned with accountability and transparent governance. By and large, the consensus is that the PNP has drifted away from the philosophical principles and core convictions that Party was founded on, and as one observer remarked morphed into an ‘anything goes’ organisation. If the party is to restore its brand quality, its own credibility and the confidence of the voter-citizen, it is obliged to revert to its original core values, behavioural codes and policies. These include integrity, real concern for the poor, and a belief in education as an important key component that can move the masses out of poverty, a stable social order and concern for the disadvantaged. A political party, which is not anchored in any strong convictions or operates without clear goals and purposes, will become the option, not the people’s choice it imagines.
Review and Regroup
The PNP has a lot of work to do to improve its brand image. Indeed, its electoral defeat should serve as a timely wake up call for the Party to return to the core image that once made its brand strong, respected, envied and seemingly indestructible. It must continue be proactive rather than reactive to social conditions and circumstances impacting on the disadvantaged in the society. Among the strongest features of Brand PNP is the consensus that it boasts an efficient political machinery and some of the shrewdest strategic thinkers and political campaigners in the Caribbean. As an organisation, it’s always appeared to be less bifurcated than its main competitor. Indeed, part of the success of the PNP’s political brand is that by comparison, it is seen to be a better team, better organised and more team-oriented; it speaks with one voice and is supportive of whomsoever is elected to lead. This image has appeared less so in the past few years. A transition in leadership is inevitable, but this must be civil
The PNP is also seen to have a competent crop of second tier leaders; indeed, the Party appears to be very supportive of younger members of the party, elevating them to positions of leadership and offering them greater responsibilities in the Party and in government. Yet the young must illustrate that they have new fresh ideas and genuine capacity for leadership, not merely shallow mock-ups and stand ins for those retiring.
In other words, the PNP must build on these positive elements of its political brand. It must appeal to younger voters by taking advantage of the new technological platforms and spaces for political contact, connection and deliberation.The Party must also appeal to the disenchanted middle and professional classes, the so-called “articulate minority” whose perspectives and concerns often ignored in the desperate stampede to pander to the grassroots. The middle classes must feel a strong sense that the Party is working in their interest as well.
The entrenchment of the PNP as the ‘people’s party’ cannot be taken for granted. Nor can it be presupposed that people will always vote for the PNP. The instances of smug display, self-righteous contentment and arrogance must be replaced by respect for the people, inclusiveness and a commitment to integrity and accountability. The practice of open government where frank, honest and sincere communication, especially when crises occur, must take precedence over secrecy and a seeming desire of the Party to protect its own. This is the only way political trust in the PNP will be rebuilt.
All in all, the PNP’s political brand remains strong and viable despite the elements of disintegration, negativity and disapproval, which surround it. Thanks to its powerful, proud and respected history, the brand image of the Party is well established and convincing. It has a rich tradition of landmark achievements in governance and a socialist heritage, which constantly imposes upon it an obligation to work for social betterment for the poor and disadvantaged. This gives the Party credibility and authority. As a result, the organisation is much more able to bounce quickly from obstacles and incidents which may tarnish its image. The PNP has proven enduring, resilient and vibrant because it was founded upon values that remain perpetual.
Yet it has to derive fresh vision to respond to the new challenges the Jamaican society confronts. The Party has to be a thriving, vigorous opposition, and see itself as active catalysts for change. Most importantly, It must become self-critical, hold itself to account, and to the scrutiny of the people, pause to take stock of fundamental global and domestic challenges and enact policies that create the enabling environment vital for the nation to advance to the quality society (where people can live, work, play and invest) – it once pledged to achieve…. Once more, the Trumpet sounds.
Dr. Hume Johnson is a political scholar. She teaches at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, USA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org