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Keeping PNM's Commandments

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 17, 2008

A week ago Louis Lee Sing broke two of the most sacred of PNM's commandments: thou shall not speak evil of the political leader in public; and thou shall not speak evil of the party in public. It's alright to speak your truth about the political leader and the party behind closed doors; it's quite another matter to air negative views in public.

Flabbergasted by the increase in crime and presumably without a legitimate party outlet to have his views heard, Lee Sing uttered the forbidden and placed our failing crime policy at the feet of the Prime Minister. In response to Lee Sing, the political leader declared that party members should keep their grievances within the party where all disagreements are amicably resolved.

As it is structured, PNM does not allow for a sufficient debate and discussion about such critical issues. The problem is crime. Martin Joseph is the Minister of Crime. One solution to this problem is an open party debate on the issue but that is not on the agenda. As the General Secretary of the party, Martin Joseph has an obligation to attend to any issue that any member of the party raises and insure that it is brought to the attention of the party via its General Council.

However, there is a paradox. As the General Secretary of the Party, representing the interest of the party, as distinct from the government, he is called upon to speak of his malfeasance as the Minister of Crime as he presents the views of party members who believe his policy (or his government's policy) on crime is not working.

Martin Joseph's conflicting roles stymie free discussion on this and other issues. Whether Lee Sing is right or wrong is immaterial. The important question is this: how does the party ensure that the views of Lee Sing and others are being heard and how does one initiate a full-scale discussion of these and other ideas?

Criticizing PNM and its leader may be considered taboo but it is a necessary condition particularly when all political intelligence is congealed around the leader and space for legitimate dissent seems to be narrowing. Party members must feel they play a part in the formation of policy; in the structuring and recalibrating of the party's objectives; and in having the ability to initiate an on-going dialogue within the party.

Every member of the party can express his views through his constituency representative on the General Council. This presumes an on-going discourse among party groups and their members, their representative to the Central Executive Council and the General Secretary. Yet, this seamless thread does not speak to the desire of activists within the party who wish to speak urgently to the party leadership and other instruments of power within the party.

In any political arrangement, there are those who exercise power and those who are the objects of power which is why advanced constitutions, governmental or party, always insert a provision about the separation of powers. The enforcer of power in the party (the party/the political leader) and the upholder of justice for the ordinary party member (the general secretary) should not be enmeshed in a symbiotic relationship.

Lee Sing, a devoted PNM member, joined the party in 1968. Subsequently, he became a member of the PNM Youth League and education officer of the League. In 1970 he was suspended because of "subversive activities" in the San Juan-Malick area (that is, questioning authority and advancing community projects). Later, he was reinstated into the party by a motion by Dr. Eric Williams. Lee Sing has always been a voice of integrity and courage within the party.

PNM has every right to protect itself from statements and actions that appear to challenge its direction or policies even as it has an obligation to protect each member's right to express his views. It also has an obligation to insure that its policies are informed by the interests and sentiments of its party members whose views seldom rise to the top of the party. Moreover, the party has an obligation to give a clear, ambiguous sign that the views of the ordinary party member is represented and respected at every level of the party.

There should always be a healthy adversarial relation between the party, represented by the General Secretary, and the Legislative arm of the Party (that is the government branch of the party). Such a relationship is necessary since the legislative arm of the party speaks for the country whereas the party, through its general secretary, always speaks to the interests of its members. Those two tendencies must be balanced if the party member is to continue to have faith in his party and the party must rely on the trust and confidence of its membership.

A party cannot ask its members to keep its commandments if it shows little fidelity to its overall objectives. The Golden Rule applies even at the level of politics: do unto party members as it expects the party members to do unto the party.

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