Good intentions are not enough

People want fairness, nothing more, nothing less. They want equity, and demand that the market does not rule every aspect of their life. They want intervention from the State when the market is unfairly robbing them of a decent lifestyle

Last weekend’s election was a European election – though it may not always have looked that way – and as such, the results must also be seen in the context of shifting political patterns across the other 27 member states.

Despite variations in several countries, results from the rest of Europe yielded distinctive patterns. Almost everywhere, mainstream parties suffered. Contrary to expectation, however, it was not just the far-right that benefitted from the fall-out. The Liberal Democrats made substantial gains, as – to a lesser extent – did the European Greens.

The far-right, on the other hand, registered successes in specific countries; but this momentum was not replicated across the board.

This stands in stark contrast with Malta, where the mainstream parties performed entirely as expected: the Labour Party (unlike many of its socialist counterparts in Europe) improving on its nationwide majority; and the PN suffering a heavy defeat, for reasons that cannot realistically be compared to the same forces that cost the EPP support elsewhere.

Clearly, this was not a case of disillusionment with mainstream parties (in which case, Labour would have suffered, too). The dynamics at work are considerably different.

But it is the performance of smaller parties that differs most drastically. Norman Lowell’s far-right Imperium Europa improved on its vote count – though not perhaps by as much as anticipated – while those parties that should be providing a decent critique of mainstream and centrist politics, can all be seen to have floundered.

A proper post-election analysis would have to take these factors into account. In part, the failure of both AD and PD may be down to the message itself: to stand on the fringes of the mainstream, without the ideological muscle to hit out at the mainstream, can only weaken these parties. Nor did it help that the PD, in particular, sent mixed messages about its own identity: trying to be ‘liberal with the liberals’, and ‘conservative with the conservatives’.

Conversely, the far-right – despite the ugliness of its message – poses a direct affront to the establishment politics by offering a simple, uncomplicated message to blame the ‘other’ – usually asylum seekers and foreign workers – and homes in precisely (if exploitatively) on the source of popular discontent.

Without adopting the same message, small parties outside the political mainstream must also understand that theirs is a populist mission, too; that unless their critique of the system is incisive and radical, they will only serve as a parking space for mainstream voters in elections where governments are not at stake.

Marketing is also key. PD candidate Cami Appelgren had long been a clean-up campaigner. Her simple message of dedicated initiative falls short of the real ‘Green politics’ that demand radical reforms of a system that perpetuates inequalities and dependence on fossil fuels. Yet it was the optics of Appelgren’s clean-up campaigns and her liberal stand on issues – especially gender and reproductive rights – that made her more popular than her own leader at the European elections.

Despite the showings of the far-right, Labour’s big tent party remains a force to be reckoned with, and it is statements by Joseph Muscat in the aftermath of the Lassane Cisse Souleymane murder that must be the guarantee with which society keeps in check the far-right: by committing Muscat to the fight against racism.

But we also have to understand those segments of the population, including working-class voters and low-income workers, whose class identity is weakened by insecure, low-paid jobs and a lack of unionisation. When the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of Malta’s economic growth starts punishing low-income workers who are priced out of the property market, it is natural that some people might respond with a ‘cultural backlash’ that seeks to restore values that symbolise a tradition of security – something rooted in the past, usually tied with notions of nationalism and native pride, and almost always antagonistic to foreign workers and poor refugees who depend on the State for protection.

People want fairness, nothing more, nothing less. They want equity, and demand that the market does not rule every aspect of their life. They want intervention from the State when the market is unfairly robbing them of a decent lifestyle. The solution cannot just take the form of benefits to help them eke out a basic living. They want a decent living wage. They want regeneration in their towns, solutions to parking problems, they want open spaces and green urban areas for their children, they want the construction madness to be reined in, they want police on the beat, and they want good neighbourliness.

This is why political candidates must own more than just a political idea. They must have roots in their community. Their activism has to be backed by a committed record. Their message has to be simple, profound and penetrating. And they have to be backed by the right kind of marketing.

In brief: the smaller parties must pull their socks up, and understand that support will not just gravitate towards them on its own. People need a reason to vote for a political party; good (but ineffectual) intentions are not enough.

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