[ANALYSIS] How Labour has spun the Delia insurgency inside the PN

Is the Nationalist newcomer contending for the PN leadership truly an example of caviar arrogance, or is he the PN’s folk hero? 

james
James Debono
13 September 2017, 11:59am
Folk-hero? Adrian Delia has been keen on trying to capture an anti-establishment spirit inside the PN
Folk-hero? Adrian Delia has been keen on trying to capture an anti-establishment spirit inside the PN
It was only after the Brexit upset and shortly after Donald Trump’s election that Prime Minster Joseph Muscat derided the PN as a party of elites and “the establishment” in 2016.

Today, it is Adrian Delia who is playing the anti-establishment card to lash out at the Nationalist Party’s old guard, which he accused of using an internal ethics inquiry to stub his election. He claimed the call for the inquiry came from the party establishment which he says is controlling the PN and wants to tarnish his name ahead of an election in which 22,000 paid-up members will select either him or Chris Said for PN leader.

But can Delia really capture the anti-elitist spirit, and how is Labour responding?

Ironically Delia’s narrative matches that of Muscat. After Trump’s election, Muscat often attacked PN leader Simon Busuttil for being part of an establishment and the “political elite.” Busuttil reacted by lashing at Muscat’s “corrupt establishment”.

But it seemed it was Muscat who had the best understanding of the global anti-establishment wave – not as an insurgency against corruption – but a yearning for a connection between voters and leaders who understand them.

Reacting to Trump’s victory, Muscat actually issued a statement describing it as a sign “that families and business want decision-makers to hear their real, unfiltered concerns” and that “priorities are decided in homes and workplaces, not in palaces or newsrooms.”

It was no surprise that the Labour commentary warmed up to Delia’s message. Government consultant Robert Musumeci described the reactions of the “elitists” to the result of the first round, where over 600 party councillors chose Delia,  as “a confirmation of the panic within the establishment”. The sentiment was echoed by the General Workers’ Union organ l-orizzont, praising Delia as an “anti-establishment candidate” fighting against a “hidden hand” that is trying to maintain control over the party.

Caviar and wine, the OPM’s take

But it was perhaps the spokesperson at Castille, Kurt Farrugia, who was quick to remove any ambiguity and reminding Labourites that the “arrogant” Delia was also “part of an elite that do not feel what people feel at home because they are well off feeding on expensive caviar and wine” and that “the fact that Delia is a sleazy character is known”.

This image Farrugia conjures of Delia contrasts with Muscat’s projection as the normal citizen who shops at Green’s Supermarket and pays for the lavish €11,014 holiday in Dubai with his credit card: an image which resonates with an aspirational middle class and the newly-moneyed.

So in Farrugia’s narrative it is Muscat who incarnates a sort of cockeyed ‘anti-establishment’ as he – quoting Farrugia – “keeps leading the country forward and pushing a positive message, while the country keeps growing in wealth and our societies become more socially just.”

This kind of message seems to counterbalance the impression that Labour would like to see Delia as its adversary, something hinted at in yet another Facebook status posted by Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi, who alluded to Delia being Labour’s Trojan horse.

"And what about those offshore companies? The ones in Panama and Jersey... that dark side of the global establishment? It seems none of this has disqualified anyone from playing the political rebel in the game of anti-establishment"
Delia’s rival, the former minister and Nationalist MP Chris Said, has however attempted to reclaim the anti-establishment rhetoric by reminding voters that the real establishment in the country is made up of “Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona”. Now, the addition of Cardona to the ‘Panama’ triad can only be understood as a veiled reference to Delia’s past association with the Labour deputy leader: both men appeared to have been at one point directors of an offshore company, Healey Properties, which owned several residences on behalf of a Maltese Soho landlord, which properties were raided by London police during Operation Pabail, an investigation into a prostitution racket.

Was there a hidden hand?

Writing in party organ Il-Mument, PN candidate Mark Anthony Sammut deconstructed Delia’s anti-establishment narrative. “The idea that there is a hidden clique of four old people holding the strings and able to determine how 1,500 people vote is nothing but Labour propaganda which is now being propagated by some of us.”  

In some ways the result of the PN’s General Council election contradicts Delia’s narrative. Last Saturday’s result on its own may be seen as an insurgency against the party establishment which called on Delia to reconsider his candidature in the wake of the Soho property allegations. But the result itself quashed conspiracy theories of an all-powerful establishment which manipulates the party at will. 

It also showed how limited the influence of media reports, particularly but not exclusively those of Daphne Caruana Galizia, was on the party diehards.

Ironically having won the first round Delia emerged as the favourite of party insiders. Had Delia been defeated in the first round, the result would have been tainted, probably presented as one resulting from manipulation by the dominant clique. On the other hand if Delia is defeated in the second round, there will be no room for such claims and the result will be sealed in legitimacy.

But if Delia does win, the result will still legitimize his scathing criticism of the party establishment. For his General Council triumph exposed the limits of negative campaigning, especially when none of his rivals had the same seductive appeal as Delia has.

 

Victimisation, and the return of class

With some of the attack having had a personal twist, Delia seemed able to boost the impression of being a victim of some party establishment, a flexible term that can always be conveniently used to include any detractor and exclude any supporter.

In an eerie Facebook post, the PN’s president of the administrative council, Karol Aquilina, hinted at a possible takeover of the PN by freemasons, a trick as old as Terinu’s mendacious oath against Lord Strickland. But then the Church’s media arm entered the fray, publishing a photo of two de Marco canvassers outed as freemasons by MaltaToday, snapped at the Hamrun party club with Delia, and backers Kristy and Jean-Pierre Debono.

Aquilina’s post seems to be a veritable case of putting the cart before the horse, by making the insinuation before the evidence emerged.  

What is most surprising is that while the establishment theme has become a fixture in national and internal party debates, it is the power of big business – which forms the bedrock of any real establishment – that is rarely questioned. 

In itself, the idea of some fixed, historical establishment like the Church and old money wielding all the power simply ignores the rise of dynamic elites. These new elites have their own connections in the political world.

Class may yet make a comeback, even if political discourse itself is cleansed of any class conflict: in the way of images, already a personality clash is being conjured, with Delia eating caviar (according to Kurt Farrugia) or Muscat living it large with a Dubai beach holiday (as depicted by Daphne Caruana Galizia).

And what about those offshore companies? The ones in Panama and Jersey… that dark side of the global establishment? It seems none of this has disqualified anyone from playing the political rebel in the game of anti-establishment.

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...