BUNTING OUT OF THE BLOCKS? Spotlight on his ‘leadership intentions’
Members of the top brass of the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) are insistent that Dr Peter Phillips is on sound footing as both party and Opposition Leader, and will not be challenged for those positions anytime soon.
This is despite reports of continued rumblings and discontent inside the party over Phillips’ leadership, especially with him guiding the party to two crucial by-election defeats in seats that the PNP won in the February 2016 General Election. Those losses in South East St Mary in 2017, and the more recent East Portland defeat, have seen the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) opening up a five-seat majority in the 63-member House of Representatives, where the JLP had the slimmest of majorities (one seat) on general election night in 2016. The House is now 34-29 in favour of the JLP.
With the Andrew Holness-led Government getting generally good reviews for its performance after a little over three years in office, concerned Comrades are of the view that a younger, more vibrant leader who embraces social media, and who is able to engage young people, is crucial if the PNP is to get back to Jamaica House anytime soon.
One man’s actions in recent times appear to suggest that he is positioning himself to challenge Phillips for leadership of the PNP, possibly as early as the party’s annual conference in September of this year. That man is the former General Secretary and current three-term Member of Parliament (MP) for Central Manchester, Peter Bunting.
At age 55, Bunting clearly has ambitions of leadership, and last Tuesday he broke with the party and voted ‘no’ on the resolution that was debated in the House of Representatives to extend the state of emergency (SOE) that was declared for the three western Jamaica parishes of Hanover, St James and Westmoreland. He was the only Opposition MP present to do so.
Peter Bunting (left) and Dr Peter Phillips.
Even when Phillips acknowledged that an emergency situation exists in the area now under the SOE while repeatedly declaring that the Opposition would not support the emergency measure indefinitely, Bunting, during a lengthy contribution to the debate, insisted that there is no such emergency.
Rather, Bunting argued that “the Government has successfully conflated in the public’s mind, the idea that the only respite from violence and from murder and shooting in particular, is to declare a state of emergency.”
In respect of assertions of the existence of an emergency, he pointedly declared that, “This is not true”.
He also accused the Government of using what he called its “formidable PR machinery” to exploit the public that he said is desperate for relief, but in whose mind he suggested that the Government has successfully planted the idea that only a SOE will save them.
Before last Tuesday’s House debate, Bunting had appeared in a video at what seemed to be a meeting in his Central Manchester constituency, following the April 4 East Portland by-election defeat. In a six-minute clip that was obtained by Loop News, Bunting suggested that the PNP’s message, the platform being presently used to deliver that message, and some of the persons carrying that message, could benefit from embracing technology, and also need to be themselves credible.
Bunting started by telling his constituents that general elections are almost always called in year five of the election cycle. While he said he was not worried about who the JLP will send to run against him, he said “this year is the last chance we have to fine-tune the political organisation”.
Throughout his presentation, Bunting suggested that the PNP had lost touch with young people, a crucial bloc going forward into the next national polls.
He warned that the challenge being faced by the PNP today “is to connect (with), to engage, and to earn the support of the young voters in this country”.
Some political watchers have suggested that it is an uphill task for Phillips, who is just months shy of his 70th birthday, to connect with young voters, as woefully lacks charisma.
On the other hand, at 46, the youthful Holness is the country’s first post-Independence prime minister with a significant social media following made up largely of young people.
“The young people today don’t have too much interest in us telling them what Norman Manley did, and what Michael did, and what PJ did, and what Portia did. They are not focused on the history and the past, they are focused on the present and the future, and we have to learn how to engage them in the ways they want to be engaged,” Bunting told his constituents and the wider PNP audience.
He told Comrades that the party should not expect young people to adjust to the party’s way of doing things. In his high-tech video presentation, the well-known businessman noted that a majority of the more than 2,500 young people between 18 and 24 years old who voted in the East Portland by-election, cast their ballots for the JLP’s Ann Marie Vaz, who defeated PNP Vice President, Damion Crawford, in a closely-fought election in a seat the PNP had not lost in 30 years, and one they had lost only three times since 1944.
When shown the video, one political commentator said it bordered on being alarming that in 2019 Bunting had to be telling Comrades that they must figure out how to engage young people.
“Holness and the JLP rule social media where young voters reside,” the commentator said.
Apart from engaging the youth, Bunting said the PNP “must listen to them”. And he implored that having a PNP Youth Organisation (PNPYO) is not enough, as young people must be engaged at all levels of the party, including those who are poll clerks and election-day workers.
And he appealed for the 80-year-old party to embrace technology.
“We are going to have to do things differently. We have to start bringing in technology into the centre of our organising efforts. The days of sending out people with long sheet of paper to do canvass with pencil and paper, those days done. Smart phone and tablet we ‘haffi’ use from now, and that is where the young people can come in, because they are what we call ‘digital natives,” said Bunting.
The former Minister of National Security suggested that the PNP was working inefficiently and ineffectively. He repeated that the party must embrace social media, and must have credible messengers.
“It’s not just the message, but it’s also the medium that we carry the message on. And we must make sure that we have messengers who are also credible,” he stated.
He argued that the message “must inspire and motivate people to go out there and work as a volunteer army for the PNP.
He said: “A volunteer army will always be… a mercenary army, because that is what the JLP has, an army of mercenaries.”
His thought-provoking speech aside, Bunting appears to be gaining traction with the electorate. In a non-scientific poll conducted by Loop News five days after the East Portland by-election, Bunting emerged as an overwhelming favourite to replace Phillips as PNP president, among the most favourable second-tier leaders in the party. Some 41 per cent of respondents said he was most worthy to challenge Phillips for the leadership position.
Interestingly, the category ‘other’ was next best, with 20 per cent, followed by Mark Golding with 13 per cent, Lisa Hanna 12 per cent, and Julian Robinson with 11 per cent.
One former frontrunner, Phillip Paulwell, polled just two per cent of the votes.
By contrast, Phillips, in opinion polls this year, has been underwater when compared to Holness as a national and party leader.
The RJR/Gleaner Don Anderson poll conducted in March showed that only 12 per cent of respondents gave Phillips a positive rating, while 51 per cent rated him negatively. Some 37 per cent rated him as being ‘average’.