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michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon

Reinventing the PN

The negativity of the forces behind the throne at the PN locked it in a position in which it only bothered with attacking the Muscat government with corruption claims – some evidently true, others never proven

michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon
20 June 2017, 7:30am
Busuttil has accepted his responsibility for the PN’s debacle in the most gentlemanly of manners… will his successor save the PN from being irrelevant?
Busuttil has accepted his responsibility for the PN’s debacle in the most gentlemanly of manners… will his successor save the PN from being irrelevant?
After its last electoral debacle, many are asking what type of party does the PN want to be in order to be able to work effectively towards realising the affluent modern society that is the aspiration of the average Maltese citizen. 

Way back in 2014, after the PN loss in the European Parliament elections had echoed its 2013 electoral defeat, and after he had made the historical mistake of opting for the Opposition MPs to abstain from the vote on the civil unions bill, Simon Busuttil realised he had to do something about the situation the PN had found itself in. In his speech during the 2014 Independence Day celebrations, he outlined his vision of the PN as a political force that rises to every challenge; including the one that calls for its reinvention to become a political force that believes in equal opportunities for all while safeguarding the common interest, a secular party that follows principles and values that are interpreted within the context of today’s society and that looks forward to the future while basing its action on an honest evaluation of situations and being consistent in what it says and does in practice.

Nothing of the sort happened.

The negativity of the forces behind the throne at the PN locked the party in a position in which it only bothered with attacking the Muscat government with corruption claims – some evidently true, others never proven.

The situation that the PN finds itself in today after the debacle of the second general election defeat has an uncanny resemblance with that faced by the British Labour Party after its two electoral drubbings at the hands of the Iron Lady, the inimitable Margaret Thatcher.

In his autobiography – The Third Man – Peter Mandelson, who was New Labour’s guru and spin doctor, explains that after its first electoral defeat Labour had changed its leader but not its political stance. 

Mandelson realised that in spite of many voters having a ‘visceral dislike’ for Thatcher they nevertheless felt she was acting strong and that there was no alternative. One of the big problems was the shortsighted impulse that led many in Labour to adopt the default position that they must be against whatever the Conservatives were for.

‘The problem’, as Mandelson puts it, ‘was that a modern relevant Labour Party could not operate on atavistic instinct. We could not make a policy on the simple basis that everything that the Tory government – a comfortably re-elected Tory government – did was wrong. That risked not just failing to take on board policies that might be right, but could leave us opposing policies of far greater benefit to our own voters than anything we were offering.’ 

After Thatcher’s second victory, Mandelson embarked on an investigation – through a public opinion agency – of the state of mind of Britain’s voters: what they valued in their lives and in government, why they supported one party or another and what had convinced them, or might convince them, to switch sides. Even though, over two decades, Labour’s share of the vote had fallen by 20 per cent, more than a quarter of Labour’s shrinking base said they kept voting Labour only out of residual loyalty. In Britain, the Labour Party was ‘becoming less and less popular, less and less relevant’, while there was a whispering campaign against its leader, Neil Kinnock. This was the situation that eventually saw the birth of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’. The rest is history.

There are many lessons to be drawn from those events. It is obvious that Joseph Muscat emulated them when he took over the leadership of the MLP – now the Labour Party – in 2008, while the PN stuck doggedly to its old line, continually refusing to listen to the warning signs and ignoring the messages that the electorate was sending. 

The PN ignored the fact that it was its incredible lack of empathy with the electorate’s wishes and aspirations that had brought its historically huge downfall in 2013. Unfortunately, within the PN the argument was won by those who still believed that the 2013 election result was simply the result of the electorate being duped by Muscat’s promises and that all the PN needed to do was to sit back, vehemently oppose whatever the Muscat administration did and then just wait for the chickens to come home to roost…

This attitude has led to the PN becoming more irrelevant with an ever weakening base. Simon Busuttil’s promise of a silent revolution leading to the reinvention of the PN and to its finding its relevant place in Maltese society was never delivered. Instead the PN lost itself in an aggressive stance on the subject of corruption. It was simply an overkill that ignored what was happening on the ground, where thousands of traditional PN voters had realised that their life had improved on Muscat’s watch. In the end the new haemorrhage of votes from the PN made up for the votes that the PN managed to recover, with the gap between the two parties slightly widening rather than narrowing. 

The argument that people opted for corruption rather than for honesty is, at best, misleading. It assumes that the PN is morally and intellectually superior to the PL that enjoys the trust of the majority of the electorate – an incredible state of denial that does not recognise the fact that Joseph Muscat is a strong leader whom one cannot defeat just by touting the honesty and integrity of his opponent. It also assumes that Labour ministers are all inferior to the pre-2013 PN ministers – another inane assumption that reinforces the perception of arrogance that many voters see in the PN’s way of doing things.

In the end, Simon Busuttil did not manage to impose himself over those that kept holding him back and who are still in a state of denial. 

Simon Busuttil has accepted his responsibility for the PN’s debacle in the most gentlemanly of manners. But the conservative forces that had soldiered on in the face of the glaring truth that they chose to ignore, are now vainly clamouring for him to remain leader.

Will Busuttil’s successor manage to reinvent the PN and save it from being irrelevant? 

[email protected]

michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon is a former government minister who served under several Nationalist admini...
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