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JM | Oct 14, 2020

Should Julian Robinson take heat for PNP election trouncing?

Al Edwards

Al Edwards / Our Today

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General Secretary for Jamaica’s main opposition, the People’s National Party, Julian Robinson (Photo: Facebook @JamaicaPNP)

With the PNP eviscerated by the JLP in last month’s general election, the long knives are now out and they are mercilessly cutting into former General Secretary Julian Robinson.

It is now said he presided over an insipid campaign, the messaging was woefully inadequate, he failed to build up a sufficient election war chest, he couldn’t unite the party and allowed for the fractiousness that tore it asunder.

Is this a case of tar and feathering Robinson because he makes for a convenient scapegoat? Should the PNP’s underlying shortcomings for the last few years be laid at his feet?

Some of the younger cohort of the party chastise him for not sufficiently understanding and effectively employing social media and best practices in ‘branding’. Many of them bemoan his inability to connect the party to the young and make it a viable proposition for them.

Robinson has been pilloried and castigated but on closer inspection should the blame lie firmly on those broad shoulders? The general secretary is guided by the party leader and acts as a facilitator and sees to it that the party’s machinery is in tip-top condition. The position doesn’t see the general secretary setting the direction and agenda – that’s the leader’s job. That’s not to say a general secretary cannot make suggestions, make his observations be known—a general secretary is a ringmaster, not the ring leader.

If Robinson had deigned to forcefully tell Dr Phillips that his style, demenour, and approach would see the party routed at the general election, he would have been cast aside. Being general secretary is a very delicate job that sees one having to ensure all actors are content and that the party functions effectively and is in the best state to secure power.

Photo: Facebook @JamaicaPNP

Julian Robinson is an intelligent, very capable man who was chosen to become the general secretary of the PNP, after its glory days. Once where the PNP could be assured of battering an Edward Seaga-led JLP, this was no longer the case with a re-energised JLP headed by Andrew Holness.

‘PNP country’ notion shattered?

A long winning streak means you get used to it and see little need to change your tactics. The thinking might have been that the 2016 JLP slender victory was an aberration that would be corrected next time around. The party could cleave to the well-held view that the PNP has always had the better political machinery.

But times change and one must change with them.

Dr Peter Phillips was a stalwart of the party and played an integral part in winning successive general elections long before Robinson came on board as a senior party member. It would be facetious of him and may well be deemed disrespectful if he stridently and openly opposed Phillip’s direction and leadership of the party.

Former PNP president Dr Peter Phillips. (Photo: Facebook @JamaicaPNP

The writing was on the wall back in 2016, but it needed a collective effort to reposition the PNP and for it to form and connect to a wider base with refreshed messaging. The onus for that cannot be placed with Julian Robinson.

He also had to marshal his forces and prepare for taking on the sitting JLP, in a short space of time and during the unprecedented COVID crisis. That couldn’t have been easy, made even more difficult by constantly having to defend an unpopular leader.

The internecine nature of the struggle between Dr Phillips and Peter Bunting in October last year was also a difficulty he had to overcome. He may well have wanted to place a salve on that wound, but it proved too deep, too severe for him to remedy. Besides, his job is to exercise the will of the party, not to determine it.

If last year’s internal leadership battle served as any indication—then 2020’s sound general election whipping is all the tell-tale signs of a party in need of reinvention. (Photo: Facebook @JamaicaPNP)

That factiousness and division was never going to be a chasm that Julian Robinson all by himself could close.

Some media luminaries have gone for his jugular and pointed their finger squarely at him.

Editor-at large at the Jamaica Observer H.G. Helps was particularly scathing, declaring that Julian Robinson is the worst general secretary that the PNP  has seen.

Helps wrote: “The signals were there that the party was not expanding… it was depending too much on the hands of yesteryear to use the same approach that has been in place since 1972. Membership has been slowing and the heavy dependence on the oldsters was not working.”

“The selection of candidates, though in some cases is the prerogative of the president, falls in the lap of the general secretary. For those of you following elections since the 1970s, look at the PNP’s list of candidates and tell me if this is not the worst you have ever seen,” the senior journalist continued.

H.G. Helps

Helps makes some pertinent observations. The cratering has been gradual for some time now. Over the last few years, the PNP didn’t appear to have a roster of new young dynamic faces that would signal the new generation of the party. It also didn’t have notable surrogates able to capture the electorate’s imagination.

Almost 15 years ago, the JLP’s “young turks” openly pushed and challenged the leader and sought to re-image the party. The success the JLP enjoys today is in part due to that effort. This did not occur with the PNP; it made no attempt to steer the ship on a different course.

Redefining a party with an identity crisis…

It is less than four years since Robinson took the reign as general secretary of the PNP, succeeding Peter Bunting on October 27, 2016. This is hardly enough time to change the party root and branch. Add a new leader to the equation and the task becomes even more arduous.

It wasn’t a case that Robinson was out of his depth and the task was beyond him. He had a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish and the need for the party to modernise and redefine itself.

When he became general secretary he had this to say and his detractors will find very little to argue against here.

“Coming in at this time, which is a difficult time in the evolution of the party, we have just lost an election but this is how these responsibilities go, you don’t get them in perfect times,” Robinson asserted.

“When I talk about modernisation and renewal, I define it in three ways. First are the people. To me, your personnel and your leadership should reflect the population that exists as much as possible,” the outgoing PNP gen-sec added.

Try as they may, a Dr Peter Phillips-led PNP failed to resonate with the Jamaican electorate, which led to a resounding and embarrassing defeat in the September 3 polls. (Photo: Facebook @JamaicaPNP)

“Second we need to improve the processes in how we do things. Several things need improving, like building a database of all our members, with their phone numbers, emails, and so on. We have to use technology to enhance communication,” he said.

“The third thing is policies. What is it that the PNP stands for? When someone says they are a member of the PNP, what does that mean? There should be a set of values that characterises who says they are a member of the PNP. Values based on accountability and probity, as well as what it does mean philosophically to be a Comrade, and a member of the PNP. What are the things we are going to stand for that are non-negotiable,” Robinson noted.

Many of the questions he asks here require more of an answer after the sound beating the PNP took in September.

Here’s Helps on a CVM post-election assessment discussion, again skewering Robinson but putting the spotlight on the PNP’s shortcomings.

“If you have a weak general secretary, which the PNP has had for a couple of years, you are bound to fall into this situation. Your groups are falling flat, your membership is low, you are turning people away in terms of what you believe in or should believe in.

“You are not demonstrating this is what we are going after, and this is what we stand for.”

“They need to question whether it was a good decision to bring in Julian Robinson as gen sec and to continue past 2016 with him in that position because the machinery was an absolute sham.”

Media personality Emily Shields



Attorney and media personality Emily Shields called for the PNP to do a serious assessment of itself and what its future holds.

Emily Shields. (Photo: Facebook @UKinJamaica

Speaking on an election night TVJ panel she opined: “ They need to question whether it was a good decision to bring in Julian Robinson as gen sec and to continue past 2016 with him in that position because the machinery was an absolute sham.
 
“They won in 1989 and they kept on winning elections and we never thought it possible they could lose. For them to lose in such carnage never seen before in the political history of Jamaica in recent times says to me the retooling, the building up of the machinery, listening to the people on the ground – they were not doing it.

“You can’t have your captain out there trying to do something and the rest of the team can’t even hold itself up. It’s a big indictment on the party as a whole. While people will blame Dr Peter Phillips for it, the entire PNP has failed itself in big ways with these results.”

Robinson did the right thing and graciously fell on his sword. While he has demitted that role, he remains an asset to the party and with his talents must play a major role in the regeneration of his party. He has never been tainted by corruption or any kind of shenanigans and is a straight shooter. He has retained his seat and can be a significant parliamentarian for a new decade.

Sanguine as ever, he had this to say from the ashes of the PNP’s flameout.

Julian Robinson. (Photo: Facebook @JamaicaPNP)

“The general election results were disappointing for the party and while there will be an assessment done by an appraisal committee, as a key member of the leadership of the party, I am accepting responsibility. That doesn’t mean accepting blame for everything that happened.”

“The timing of my departure allows the new president of the party an opportunity to shape his or her own leadership team.”

Robinson has a big future ahead of him in the party. He opted not to throw his hat in the ring in the upcoming leadership contest and some may see why. However, he makes a refreshing alternative and has plenty of support particularly among younger people who take to his pragmatism.

His thinking may be to wait it out for an opportunity in a post-COVID Jamaica, when the party is in better standing.

Fortune truly does favour the brave.

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