Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The PNM's long march


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Like my fellow Express columnist Michael Harris, I was so taken back by the events which were taking place within the bosom of the People's Partnership in general and the UNC in particular, that I neglected to comment on the equally significant but less traumatic events that were taking place within the PNM.

The changes which were effected within the PNM constitution were important, notwithstanding the fact that they were made with seemingly little public acrimony. 

The basic change that was made had to do with the election of the party's political leadership. Hitherto, the political leader and the members of the party executive were chosen by delegates and not directly by party members. They were now to be chosen on a one-man one-vote principle (OMOV).

The other key change is that which gave the political leader an absolute veto over the choices of candidates made by the party groups and the screening committee of the party. These were important changes which were perhaps long overdue.

Electing party officers by delegates was a provision which was quite standard among radical parties in the early 20th century when internal communication was not as easily available. Interestingly, it was a practice that was also inspired by democratic ideological considerations.

The view which prevailed then was that the masses had to be led by elites acting on their behalf. The class enemy then were the aristocrats. One thus needed a disciplined and united socialist party to confront and displace the power holders.

Democracy was about outcomes, what was done for the masses. Parties in the Caribbean followed the Anglo-European model and elected their leaders by delegates.

The trade unions also elected their leaders on the same delegate principle. The mass parties were nominally democratic, but oligarchic in practice.

Interestingly, American "parties" still employ the delegate system in form if not in practice.

 One of the principal objections to the one-man one-vote principle is that it encourages factionalism and the washing of dirty linen in public. Factionalism is however also a feature of the delegate mode as PNM voters well know. Parties reflect their ecologies. Whether delegates are manipulated and corrupted depends more on the political culture of the party and not so much on the architecture of the party.

One should therefore not expect too much to follow from the new changes. The party will be democratic or otherwise depending on what the membership does. The constitutional form is important but it  does not determine everything. The masses will be active or politically lazy depending on a cluster of factures which it is not always easy to anticipate, much less predict.

Another important change is that which abolished the provision which gave the PNM political leader the right to veto the nomination of any candidate whom the party proposed, regardless of how much support that candidate had from his group or the party-screening committee.

This was a power which even Dr Williams did not have.

In Williams' time, the leader could influence the party's choice and did so by using his influence. Williams caused several persons to be rejected by the screening process.

Manning, however, had an absolute veto and used it to debar people like Kenneth Valley and others whom he felt would oppose him on key policy issues and constitutional matters such as an executive presidency.

Manning's view of the role of the party leader led him to foist that provision on the party. For him, the role of the party member was to support the leader, not to make policy. The latter defined what the party did or did not do.

The leader, he argued, would have had access to more critical information than grassroots elements. He would also know more than others what sort of person the party needed to have within its leadership team at any political time.

Judgment and trust must trump openness and mass participation. He would perhaps also know things about the candidate which the general membership did not. Most importantly, he would know if the proposed candidate would be loyal or not, a consideration that Manning deemed important.

The use of the veto principle explains why certain persons were excluded from the electoral team and new recruits brought in. This also explains why some of the latter continue to remain loyal to him. They owed their positions to him.

In his commentary on the changes made by the PNM, Harris rightly noted that they were only a "beginning"of what was necessary if the PNM were to be redeemed, and that the political leader of the party also had to put his new vision on the line by calling fresh internal elections under the new one-man one-vote system. This was needed to generate legitimacy for himself and his "new" vision.

I agree with Harris on this score.

Dr Rowley himself knows that the pro-Manning element is still there and has merely taken a timeout and that they would seize any opportunity to challenge him as he himself once challenged Manning for the leadership in 1998. Following his defeat, he was critical of Manning's leadership style and on the need to open up the party to other elements. One suspects, a PNM defeat in Tobago will bring Mannings challengers into the open again.

Rowley must have recalled the events of 1996 when he challenged Manning for the leadership of the party and lost.

One recalls the latter's comment that that challenge constituted one of the darkest nights of his life.  Rowley's decision to put his leadership on the line in 2014 and not in 2015 as he could do having regard to the fact that he was elected for a five-year term while the new term is four-year, is far reaching. In doing so, he has provided his would-be challengers with an opportunity to go toe to toe with him for the leadership on the OMOV principle one year before those elections are due.

The assumption is that the would-be challengers might make a bid for the leadership arguing that the party cannot win with Rowley. Rowley assumes that he would win. He could however lose the election or win narrowly and split the party in the process.

If he wins, he would have to win handsomely as Kamla did in the UNC elections. If he wins handsomely, it will serve to legitimise his leadership and possibly rally the prodigals  back to the grand old party.

Clearly, however, Rowley does not agree with Harris that in a "straight fight between the PNM and the Peoples' Partnership, the latter would win. My own view is that it all depends on the COP.

While the UNC base should hold, the party is capable of anything, and we may yet see them snatching defeat out of the jaws of apparent victory.

The PNM also knows that it has embarked on a "long march" and the end is not yet in sight.