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Penny Wise, Pound Foolish?

By Selwyn Ryan

 Pennelope Beckles is reported to have remarked that the People’s National Movement (PNM) operates much like a “cult”.

Penny was however careful not to say that the PNM is a cult. She merely said that some people believe it to be so. 

 I am not a member of the PNM, sociological  or otherwise, but I am sufficiently familiar with some of its   operations to know that the statement is not true. The PNM is however very structured and disciplined institution, much unlike some of the parties in the region with which we are familiar. The party is now experiencing new leadership challenges such as it seeks to democratise itself, but one can be certain that it will not collapse in the process of doing so.

The PNM has however been through some very tough elections before and has survived. Two of the most recent crises were the clash between Rowley and Manning in 1996, and prior to that the one in 1973 when Karl Hudson-Phillips made a bid for the deputy chairmanship. Karl’s American high-expense challenge to Francis Prevatt shocked the party and indeed the country, and in a sense brought the PNM into the 21st century in terms of  media-driven campaigning. 

Eric Williams was outraged and declared himself “blasted vex”, accused Karl of importing foreign-style campaign strategies into Trinidad and Tobago.

More recently, there were the elections of 1996.

It might be of interest to compare what is taking place now with what occurred in that  election when Mr Rowley  challenged Mr Manning for the leadership. 

We note that as was the case in respect of Penny who is being urged to stand down instead of standing up, heavy pressure was brought to bear on Rowley not to challenge for the leadership. 

It was said that one should be loyal to the leader. Mr Manning feared Rowley’s challenge and anticipated possible defeat, an outcome which he dreaded. 

He in fact said that Rowley’s challenge was the “darkest night of his political life”.

 Rowley’s challenge was indeed a formidable one and to some the party seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Manning was accused of padding the voters list with elements who were not authentic delegates and threats of  injunction had to be used to ensure that the election was free and fair.

 Many very senior members, who were accused of being Dr Rowley’s cabal, argued that Mr Manning lacked the leadership skills to take the country into the 21st century; It was said that his political blunders were so grave that there was no basis on which he could be revalidated. Very interestingly, as is now the case it was said that  he lacked appeal to the Indians and the merchant-based minorities. The claim then, as it is now, was that  Manning did not have the requisite cross-ethnic appeal. As is the case with respect to Mr Rowley, it was also said that Manning was too arrogant, too “harden” and too prone to  listen only to his voice and that of his spiritual advisers. 

The cabal that fought Manning was broad-based. Several MP’s came out against him Four circulated an unsigned letter in which they claimed that Dr Rowley “had a proven record, and had demonstrated a capacity to listen and work with his colleagues over the years”.

They asserted that his “outlined proposals for change augured well for the future, and would have a significant impact on our organisation”.  

Another group of ministers, which included Colm Imbert and the late Gordon Draper, circulated a 16-page document which argued the case for change. The former ministers expressed concern that the PNM could well decline in importance in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago and continue to be in opposition for many years to come.

Much was said in 1996 about the risks of change. Attention was drawn to what had happened to opposition parties. Rowley however supported the change to the one member one vote election paradigm.

There were others who endorsed the proposed new system, but conceded that should there be change, there were certain conditions and rules which should apply. 

The guidelines were as follows:

· Copies of all Internet electioneering material must be submitted to the secretary of the party. 

· No candidates, supporters, party, or constituency group shall use  monetary influence or otherwise to gain  delegate support. 

· No media advertising in support of any candidate.  

· Use of Balisier House shall not be granted for  holding any electioneering meetings. 

· No electioneering leading to the convention shall be held in open-air venues 

· Invitations to meetings shall be extended only to party members  

· The central executive should consider the appointment of a team of scrutinisers to attend campaign meetings to determine whether the measures were being adhered to 

· If a candidate considered any aspect of an opponent’s campaign to be offensive, the candidate should make a formal complaint to the general secretary to have the alleged infringement amicably discussed and settled

 One can argue that this was “guided democracy”. 

One should however recall that in 1955-56, the PNM was conceived in part to bring disciplined politics to Trinidad and Tobago, and that this fear of factionalism was still deeply rooted, reinforced by what was on display in the DLP, the ULF, the NAR, the UNC, and the NAR. In respect of the guidelines, one should note its concern with the use of “monetary influence” to secure political results. 

The same concern has been raised in respect to the UNC and the ILP. 

One has to be careful that as we seek to modernise and democratise our parties, we do not end up with  situations where our vaunted democracy is little more than a contest between rival money cabals  who use polls and other psephological tricks to manipulate outcomes. We have to be careful that in trying to spend a penny wisely, we do not end up being a pound foolish. 

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