Serious political parties are not mere think-tanks, pressure groups, or fan clubs. In a democratic society, they are organizations with a vision of what the country in which they operate may become and thus are seeking to gain state power to be able to advance the attainment of their vision. In short, conscientious political parties must always be guided by the considerations of the best legal and ethical ways to win electoral contests.
Against the background of the foregoing, it is my view that the effort by the People’s National Party (PNP), led by the top leadership, to reform its candidates-selection system is a bold, visionary, and necessary one as the new feature places candidates’ external electability over internal likeability.
Historical selection practices
Historically, candidate selection was left to the delegates / workers who know the candidates well and have worked with them over a period. In many constituencies, candidates were contesting multiple times so the selection process was a done deal. In some respects, that practice was acceptable as many such candidates were winning at the polls. Since 2002, the tide has been turning and former safe seats became contested seats. This reality became more widespread, as the results of the 2007 elections showed with a four-seat majority for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and even tighter in 2016 with a one-seat majority. In 2020, the PNP was all but wiped out, even though fewer people voted that year compared to 2016.
In the period between 2002 and 2020, there was no real competition in candidate selection. The delegates / constituency workers decided, and these were largely ratified by the National Executive Council (NEC), except in a few cases in which the President of the party made a choice.
The critical question the PNP ought to have asked itself, from as far back as 2007, was whether the process of selection was advancing the interests of the party, and thus by extension, the country which it would be seeking to serve. Clearly, whatever questions it asked about the candidate selection process, if any then, did not lead to an answer that some objective (or less subjective) test of candidate electability was needed. This solution was created in 2023.
The new feature of the candidate selection process
Under the new candidate selection system, persons interested in representing the PNP face a series of hurdles including vetting by the party’s internal integrity committee (which is not new). In addition, since 2023, candidates are the subject of a poll conducted by a reputable polling organisation to establish the likely electability of the candidate compared to that of the opponent from the other party. This poll is conducted in the constituency among registered voters, without reference to party affiliation. Under this new system, it is the candidate whose electability score is the highest, or of those scoring over a certain percentage, who would then be presented to delegates for an affirmative vote, after ratification by the NEC.
Using scientific polling to inform the party, the constituency, and the contenders about the strength of the party in a constituency makes sense, for in the context of a contest, what is the value of selecting a candidate who is likable but not electable. Unlike previously when there were “safe” seats and anyone put up would likely win, the new norm is, and happily so, that a candidate must have wide appeal and be attractive to supporters of the opposing party as well as independents.
Good for democracy
The PNP’s new candidate selection process is, in my view, not only good for the party, given that it has the potential to raise the bar on the type of candidates selected, but it is also good for the country’s democracy in that it subjects candidates to an assessment by a wider cross-section of would-be voters and potentially neutralizes or minimizes the fan club, family, friend & company impact on the selection process.
What is also good about this new insert into the selection process is that it still gives a definitive and determinative voice to the delegates. Thus, contrary to some misperceptions, inside the PNP that the use of polls eliminates the delegates’ definitive vote, it merely precedes it and gives them a chance to be aware of it when they are choosing. It is primarily and critically designed to provide a body of scientific information to aid decision-making and thus strengthen the overall process.
It’s the country (stupid!)
One of the mistakes political parties make is that of believing that contests are about them. No, it is about the country, if one is serious about development. The party is the means, not the end. Thus, while repeating that neither the PNP nor the JLP has a divine right to rule Jamaica, I would like to issue the advice to the PNP that if it wishes that citizens take it seriously, it needs to present itself as a unified entity. The party members should understand that unbridled personal ambitions will not help the party and ultimately undermine their wish to translate vision to reality.
No system is free from potential manipulation but in my view, this new polling component provides greater assurance of selecting quality candidates for service. PNP members should guard against making perfection (which does not exist) the enemy of the good.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.