On changing the PN, tread carefully

Manuel Delia has seen 15 years of political action up close. Now, the man ‘who messed up the buses’ says it is time for the PN to rebuild the alliances it lost after the party chose to fight its battle in the media and boardrooms but not in the streets

The election result does not mean the PN was wrong. It means the last word was said on its ability to convince people it was a better alternative to Labour
The election result does not mean the PN was wrong. It means the last word was said on its ability to convince people it was a better alternative to Labour

The unedited version of this blog appeared here

It hurts, doesn’t it? Oh yes. It especially hurts when you’re still convinced you’re right but are now branded arrogant and self-serving to continue to think so. That you’ve learnt nothing from the lessons the democratic process has attempted to teach you.

Clearly the outcome of an election determines the choice of government and parliamentarians and therefore it is the last word on which side has been more convincing. But is it the last word on who was more right? In such a black and white conflagration as this last one, does the outcome of an election decide who was right and who was wrong?

I have been through three defeats of the PN – in 1996, 2013 and this year – and in every one of these times the narrative has been identical.

First of all it must be explained that the PN activist is a very strange animal.

Observe the PN activist’s behaviour in the good days when elections are won. On Friday we campaign, on Saturday we vote, on Sunday we count, on Monday we celebrate, on Tuesday we start complaining. The typical section committee member and Kunsill Generali member of the PN is a tough critic indeed who holds leadership to a very high standard and who will clamour for rolled heads without inhibition.

A PN activist is loyal but there are degrees of loyalty and people are never ranked above party.

I was at the counting hall in 2013 when within minutes of sorting, the loud roar of Labour activists and the perspex-bashing announced our massive defeat. What a feeling that is. Your rib cage rattles and your eyes burn with suppressed emotional confusion. Within an hour though, in the behind-the-scenes rooms of the counting hall, the blame game starts.

It takes no time before the PN activist speaks of removing the leadership and starting from scratch again. It is a reflection of the strong democratic credentials of the party and its grassroots that the conversation does not dwell on why the public made a mistake of voting the other side. The quick assumption is not that the people are wrong. Nor that the party was wrong. It is the people running the party that are wrong.

Very quickly talk becomes radical. Change is needed and it cannot be superficial change. It must be radical change that makes the party unrecognisable. Anyone who was anyone yesterday must become no one as quick as can be.

That very quickly becomes the general narrative of those who supported the PN, including the press that but a few days earlier had adopted the editorial line that the PN was the urgently imperative choice for the country.

Now the leaders must suffer the punishment for losing the election and in this business there is only one punishment: a lifetime of banishment in the wilderness.

Is it not supremely ironic that in a country where politicians get caught money laundering and taking kickbacks, it is their critics who are made to resign? Well, that is how history works: it folds into its yarn amusing twists, for the future to have a point to read our story when we’re long dead.

In 1996 the punishment was suspended because before anyone could blink twice, Labour’s government started tumbling over its own feet. And how providential that reprieve proved to be. Eddie Fenech Adami now enjoys (rightly so) near-divine status in the PN pantheon. But in November 1996 his reputation with the faithful was nothing like that at all. ‘OK, Eddie put on a great show but now that he lost it’s time for him to go. And with him anyone who worked for him.’ If that sentence had been executed – if it had not been for Lino Spiteri publicly pissing on Alfred Sant’s shoes – there would likely have not been a successful 1998 campaign, a successful EU referendum, and the rest of that glorious chapter of Maltese and PN history.

In 2013 the sentence was executed and how.

The reinvention of the PN required the exorcism of its past. With the exception of elected MPs who had to be carried like scars and could not be got rid of, any other recognisable face from the Gonzi years was sent packing. In my own small way – being the guy who, in that narrative, messed up the buses – I too was sent packing.

If I’m honest after 15 years of full-time professional politicking I did not need much shoving to walk away. I was not resentful when in 2013 the new leadership took over and politely though unmistakably, showed me the door. I was crawling towards it anyway. Others were rather more unceremoniously kicked out and asked not to show up.

I insist I felt no bitterness and no resentment. I too am a PN activist you see. My loyalty too is foremost to the party rather than to the people active within it, even when those people are me. The party needed me (and many other more important and more valid contributors) to be excluded, to give space to the new guys and girls to rebuild the financially bankrupt party they had inherited, to transform it into a party that could win again.

And they did a great job of it too. It is tempting when the knives are out to burn hindsight and measure the success of Simon Busuttil and his team by the electoral result in the last election. But it is wrong to do so. They propped up the party, they made it into a respected and respectable force in our community again, and they ran a campaign that was pertinent and eminently readable.

‘The personal human relationship between voter, street leader, section committee veteran and party HQ was severed. This was a relationship nurtured over decades of mobilisation’
‘The personal human relationship between voter, street leader, section committee veteran and party HQ was severed. This was a relationship nurtured over decades of mobilisation’

Losing the war on the other fronts

The election result does not mean the PN was wrong. It means the last word was said on its ability to convince people it was a better alternative to Labour.

The PN won the battle it fought in the switchers and floaters battleground. I only have anecdotal evidence… it’s the same that put the independent press, the corporate body representatives, the professional societies and the civil society community in one mind with the PN. People with no political affiliation as such were persuaded Labour needed to be removed from power, and the reasons for voting Labour in 2013 were, if anything, even more applicable to switch to the PN this time round.

The PN fought its war on that front, choosing the battle it could win, and, I argue, it won it. It won it when the independent press endorsed it. It won it when Marco Cremona, Astrid Vella, Philip Rizzo, Grace Borg and many other firm critics of the PN in 2013 endorsed it in 2017.

The PN won that battle but lost the war.

And the war was being fought by Labour on fronts the PN had not even realised existed.

And I submit the failure to realise that these fronts existed is partly due to the pogrom of 2013 that eliminated the institutional memory and the personal networks accumulated by the party over decades.

I shall attempt to highlight those fronts.

Firstly the economic argument. The party of bulk buying, regressive protectionism, price-fixing, wage-freezing, isolated markets, VAT-removing and disastrous replacing – and the politicians who personally introduced those policies – battled and won the economic argument against the party which supervised the economic transformation of our country, the opening of the European markets, the fiscal discipline to align with the euro, and the unscathed survival of the 2008 worldwide crisis.

Labour convinced voters it was the safe pair of hands that would, to stretch Joe Saliba’s 2008 metaphors, have a tight grip on the rudder.

It is true that old faces come with many warts, but ultimately it’s the economy, stupid. Nobody wants complete novices to run their affairs on their behalf. A healthy mix and balance between innovative and energetic young Turks and wary, responsible older ones is simply a better formula. Joseph Muscat knew this instinctively when he took over as Labour leader in 2008.

Does anyone doubt the hurt the Joe Grimas, the Karmenu Vellas, the Leo Brincats and all the other Mintoffian grandees caused over their time in power both to Labour supporters and detractors alike? But in bringing them on board, complemented by Edward Scicluna, the theorist of post-colonial protectionist economics of the 1980s but with a disproportionate reputation for competence, Muscat compensated publicly for his own personal inexperience in public finance.

It was one of his many tactical masterstrokes that the PN did not learn from in 2013.

There was another battle Labour waged during the 2017 campaign, which the PN did not even realise was happening, let alone that it was losing.

Labour knew full well it could not win the good governance argument it had exploited so well in attracting switchers four years before. But it did not have to improvise as a result.

Very early on it worked out the risk of relying on switchers to stick with it after a term in government. No one knew better than Labour just how fickle these voters are. Easy come, easy go as they say.

For each vote that was likely to be lost to the changing wind, Labour used its time in power to a more secure shift in its direction by people who will feel indebted to Labour preferably for lifetimes ahead. Many former supporters of the PN were targeted by the government, charmed and seduced by similar initiatives: mostly related to public sector sinecures, promotions, favouritism, unjustified breaches of planning rules and other rotten compromises with proper governance.

Jobs to former proper Nationalists in the senior public sector did more than achieve their silence. It recruited their silent support. It was also happening in far larger numbers with small time hardcore PN supporters whom the PN assumed would remain loyal while it focused on winning the floaters back.

And that effort was not making the press and therefore was being completely missed by the PN. Like the fictional foreign minister in Yes, Minister, the PN was gathering its intelligence from the Times… rather than the other way round.

As it did so, Labour nibbled at the PN’s base: that base which is neither Catholic nor liberal; neither pro-Europe nor anti; neither pro-hunting nor against it. These people are tepid on corruption and only vaguely aware of what it means to have a bank account, never mind one in Panama. These people voted PN all their lives because they never felt they had a reason not to. And now they were given one. While no one was watching the PL was actually chasing them to solve problems for them they did not even know they had.

It went beyond having courteous customer care. Clientelism became a pro-active business where the unofficial motto became “għandek bżonn xi ħaġa?”. Those of us who got mistaken calls was because of a four-year nationwide campaign to throw the net as widely as possible and gather whatever bites. We thought the callers were looking for Labour supporters and mistook us for one. They weren’t. They were looking for PN supporters to give them a reason to switch allegiance.

Forgetting the lessons of the past

In decimating the legacy of party officials with decades of experience working with the grassroots and gathering information about what was happening in our society over the last five years, what was left of the new post-2013 PN did not have the intelligence infrastructure to understand what was going on around it.

The personal human relationship between voter, street leader, section committee veteran and party HQ was severed.

This was a relationship nurtured over decades of mobilisation. Already in 1996, when Austin Gatt’s team was scapegoated for that loss, the infrastructure built in the organisational years of Gatt and his predecessor Louis Galea had started to weaken. Post-Joe Saliba it got even weaker until what was left of it was destroyed in 2013 and the party became a professional organisation concerned with fighting battles in the media and in boardrooms but had lost sight of the streets.

I have read many facile descriptions of the ‘echo chamber’ of Facebook where the PN enjoyed a false sense of security from its supporters within that space and lost sight of what was happening outside it. I think that’s unfair criticism. The PN’s echo chamber was much wider than my sanitised Facebook friends list. The PN crafted a position for itself that found the support of all of these. And it rightly expected that support to be reflected on and be a reflection of the public’s opinion.

In all this time the PL was ignoring that wider echo chamber and focusing on the people who were not looking but to give them the right reason to shift their allegiance and do so for the long term.

And here is my third reason that I consider as consequential of the 2013 pogrom (and the trend that had preceded it all the way back since 1996): the PN forgot where it had been in 1976 and what it had to do to get to 1981 and the many years after that. That having secured clarity in its political programme and crystallised its political reason for being, built new structures to professionalise its own administration, finding a voice using its own media, having argued successfully why it was a better option for the country… it also had to go through the tough slog of mobilising the support of more than half the population.

Argument, structure and media alone do not do that. They are required but insufficient. It is like expecting a business to succeed because it crafted a brilliant mission statement.

National mobilisation of that extent requires a social network that permeates every workplace, street, club and every society.

In its instinct for normality, the PN post-1987 started a long process of withdrawing from people’s lives. The less politics, the better. By the time the generation that was working in the party in 1987 had retired or was made to retire, subsequent generations adopted the timid policy of smaller government and the reservation of politics as a spectator sport for the committed loons at the service of the ungrateful wider community.

Muscat’s Labour capably filled that vacuum. It claimed to be imitating Obama’s popular mobilisation and volunteer engagement. What it was really doing is imitate the methods of Louis Galea and Austin Gatt, from Peter Serracino Inglott and from Richard Cachia Caruana, from Lawrence Zammit and from Joe Saliba – ultimately what they learnt from Eddie Fenech Adami – how a population is successfully mobilised, how support is secured, how elections are won, again and again.

While Labour was learning its lessons from those grandees, the PN was busy forgetting them. A rich tradition of experience in doing the business of parties, was knocked down in favour of newness and unwarranted embarrassment of the older.

Don’t repeat 2013 errors

It seems the PN is intent on repeating the 2013 mistake and burn down what was even built since then.

In this self-imposed collective political suicide, a huge empty cave is being created for some people whose only credential is their relative newness and unattachment to previous party administrations. Not being experienced, not being endowed with the rich legacy of the party’s tradition, not having any real knowledge of the business of party politics and public administration, have according to these people become job requirements to run the PN.

That will satisfy the thirst for blood of the party activists who were sharpening their knives within minutes of the result. It will satisfy the press’s apparent obsession with heads rolling and cause a twitter of an applause today in the midst of the crashing pillars around our ears.

But the question the PN should be asking itself today should not be whether the decisions its leaders take today will be welcomed in Sunday’s newspapers. The question is how will the voter who we will probably never actually speak to in the next five years deal with those decisions at the next ballot.

So I am not so keen in seeing the 2013 errors repeated and seeing everyone leave for a fresh new completely inexperienced band to come in.

The party is not just a brand built from scratch after every election. If that’s the case then it isn’t the same party. And standing from within the PN, I do not understand why we should be embarrassed of our history and our leaders when the causes of our losses were tactical, not ethical.

So please let’s make these changes carefully and let’s mine the wealth of our experience and history in order to empower our party with the ability to not only be a model of competence, leadership and innovation which it consistently has been right up to today, but also once again the single most powerful mobilised force for good this nation has ever had.

Manuel Delia was a member of the political secetariat of Nationalist minister Austin Gatt and a former PN candidate in 2013