[ANALYSIS] Would a name change solve the PN’s identity crisis?

The former PN minister Louis Galea has suggested the PN gets a rebrand in a wider party reform. Would it solve the party’s identity crisis, asks JAMES DEBONO?

The name Partit Nazzjonalista and its emblem, affectionally known as the ‘maduma’ (the slab), remain relics of the party’s anti-colonial and pro-Italian origins which now appear to be the source of embarrassment in European circles where “nationalists” normally inhabit far-right parties.

Now a double-barrelled name has been floated by grandee Louis Galea as a possible rebrand for the PN, namely Partit Popolari tan-Nies (Popular People’s Party) or Partit Nazzjonali tal-Poplu (People’s National Party), and though sounding less archaic than Partit Nazzjonalista, may not be slick enough for branding purposes. But while the choice of names may need more thinking, by suggesting a change of name Galea is also forcing his party to address a fundamental problem facing it: its inability to give a coherent answer to the question of what makes a Nationalist a Nationalist in 2020.

Labour’s transformation into a centrist, aspirationalist party has compounded the problem. By pitching to the centre-right when it comes to wealth creation and to the centre-left when it comes to distribution, Labour was able to gain a foothold in what used to be Nationalist territory. It was only a meltdown under the weight of a political assassination, that brought Muscat’s edifice down. Yet polls suggest that Labour as a party may have even survived the crisis with only a few scratches.

By suggesting a re-foundation underlined by a new name and logo, Galea is suggesting that it is impossible to reform the party without first redefining its identity. For while changing a party’s name risks offending the pride of a declining breed of supporters in a country where party loyalty is a strong component of personal identity, if accompanied by other changes, it may signify the new beginning needed for the party to reach out beyond its shrinking constituency of voters.

What makes a Nationalist a Nationalist?

The political reality is one where there are many types of Nationalists who cohabit together for different reasons. This is also the case with Labour. But in the PN’s case the gel to keep them in the same house seems lacking.

For some voters, identification with the Nationalist Party boils down to a ‘conservative’ defence of tradition which is consonant with the party’s earlier history. This definition may be appealing to those who feel threatened by the civil liberties introduced by Labour after 2013 but which would leave social liberals who also have a home in the PN, cold.

This conservatism, animated by nostalgia for a way of life which is being eroded, may even be extended to other issues like migration, over-population and even environmental degradation. While conservatism is generally retrograde and backward-looking, it also comes in different shapes and doses, including a more enlightened version, which is not averse to change but seeks to apply some brakes, sometimes even to the free market.

For other voters, being a Nationalist entails an advocacy of free market economics. While Labour is nowadays far from the advocate of nationalisations, they see free market values being corrupted by the kind of crony capitalism they associate with Labour governments. But such a definition also leaves PN voters with a more social democratic outlook out in the cold.

For others, being ‘Nationalist’ is tied to a strong belief in making Malta ‘more European’ in terms of democratic standards and upholding the rule of law. But for others, the very notion of being European is tied to the idea of a Latin and Christian heritage which may well make them sceptical of a more multicultural Europe.

So with the party torn by divisions and loyalty to the leadership at its lowest ebb, the only glue binding these different attitudes and interests into a united block of voters remains opposition to Labour.

But even here things get more complicated. Some Nationalist voters simply recoil at seeing the new kids on the block joining the establishment to which they feel entitled by divine right; while others may aspire to a more abstract meritocracy, which leaves those expecting a reward for their support, cold.

How the PN lost the popular touch

In reality the PN itself includes different group of voters who experienced different trajectories. While some had their loyalties reinforced by Labour’s slip into authoritarianism in the 1980s, others had their political baptism in the EU referendum campaign where they came to associate the PN with broader horizons in Europe; even younger voters have come to associate the party with Busuttil’s anti-corruption drive.

As electoral results in affluent districts suggest, the party has largely retained its hold amongst older and tertiary-educated, and generally middle-class cohorts, even if Labour may have made some inroads with their more socially liberal children. But Labour’s scandals in office, coupled with outrage at environmental degradation, may have reinforced the PN’s hegemony in this restricted bloc, despite widespread scepticism of Adrian Delia’s brand of politics. This would point out to the redefinition of the PN as a coalition between conservatives and liberals, united by a belief in a more Europeanised brand of politics. Renaming the party “democratic”, “civic” or “popular” may be more in synch with the values of this cohort which associates the PN with EU membership than with the struggle for independence.

But the PN also includes a cohort of working-class and less affluent voters who prevail in southern districts where the party has seen major losses in all recent elections. Traditionally the party owed the loyalty of such voters thanks to its proximity to clerical and professional elites, who were highly influential at town and village level. But the party’s transformation into a mass party in the 1980s and widespread disenchantment with Labour’s blatant favouritism and thuggish antics in office contributed to the PN’s growth among these cohorts. As a minority in Labour-leaning districts, PN supporters who grew up in the 1980s in these areas may be even keener on party identity and symbols.

The economic boom of the early 1990s, coupled with greater consumer choice also helped the PN in cementing its ties with aspirational working-class and self-employed voters. Moreover the European dream was later sold to them as an opportunity for social mobility for their children.

While the PN under Fenech Adami reassured these voters by retaining a safety net, it also tapped and cultivated their individualism, thus eroding their class-consciousness and loyalty to the Labour Party. While under the PN many stopped identifying themselves with the working class, Labour gradually learned to lure them back by adjusting itself to their aspiration of becoming “little rich men”. The hike in electricity bills and accompanying austerity after 2004 also contributed to a shift in allegiance of this cohort to Labour. This was also coupled by a decline in the PN’s traditionally strong patronage networks during the Gonzi years, which led to more people complaining that they were not being served, a persistent complaint reported by PN candidates during house visits.

Moreover Labour’s positioning as the party of stability and economic growth after 2013 coupled with social measures like free childcare, free examinations and free school transport reinforced this trend, especially among those who already own their own homes and have a stable job, and where thus not exposed to the more neoliberal side of Labour’s economic model. The PN remains at a loss on how to reach out beyond its restricted cohort of middle-class voters. Delia’s ‘new way’ may have represented an attempt to reach out to them by emphasising issues like immigration but this also served to disorient other categories of voters.

The power of the ‘N’ word

So will removing the word ‘nationalist’ from the party name as suggested by Galea resolve the party’s problem in reaching out to the wider electorate?

While the word nationalist is definitely off-putting in the European context where the word is associated with the far right, in the Maltese context ‘nationalism’, remains one of the strongest definers of political identity, albeit expressed in different ways by the two sides of the political divide.

Even if it does not label itself ‘nationalist’, Labour has been more effective in deploying the nationalist card than the PN.

For while Labour tends to emphasise a brand of nationalism which pits the Maltese against the intrusions of foreigners, for example by depicting critics such as Maltese MEPs colluding with meddling non-Maltese MEPs as “traitors”, the Nationalist side has emphasised a stronger identification with European norms often held in contrast with Labour’s crass behaviour in office.

This expression of European identity in the PN is in itself contradictory. For while it partly harks back to its original identification with Latin and Christian culture, among younger and more liberal PN-leaning voters it resonates with a revulsion at Labour’s populism in a similar way that the centre-left electorates recoil at strongman populists.

The removal of the word “nationalist” from the party’s name offers the party the opportunity to reconnect to a more cosmopolitan reality, possibly an opportunity to advocate a kind of patriotism, which is less based less on loyalty to nation and ethnicity and more on loyalty to constitutional and civic values and norms.

Apart from paying lip service to the European family of centre right parties, the addition of the word “people” or “popular” to the party’s name may represent another attempt to rebuild the Eddie Fenech Adami coalition of middle class, self employed and a significant minority of working-class voters. But this in itself suggest that society is composed of one unified abstract category – the‘people’ – and contrasts with a reality marked by inequality in both power, status and income.

The question remains what gel can the party use to rebuild a coalition which cuts across these lines and will its aspiration be that of perpetuating inequality or to challenge it head-on?