[ANALYSIS] Bernard Grech’s epiphany: 5 ways for the PN to ditch its toxic elitism

Like Adrian Delia before him, Bernard Grech has suggested one of the PN’s major problems is a self-righteous habit of ‘looking down on people’. JAMES DEBONO makes five suggestions on how the PN can rid itself of its toxic elitism and respecting people’s intelligence

In a frank speech at the end of the PN’s annual general council Bernard Grech called for a change of attitude in his party: “We still look down on people. Nobody is better than anybody. We need to believe this – that nobody is worse than us and we are not better than anyone else.”

But how can a party historically associated with the pretensions of traditional elites reinvent itself once again as a mass party with a reform-minded agenda?

1. The PN needs to come to terms with its history

The PN has a history of looking down at those who do not conform with the moral yardstick set by a privileged elite. This often manifested itself in prejudice against particular social groups on grounds of class, political affiliation, religion and sexual identity.

In more recent times the party is often associated with the views, often expressed in rants on social media, of some of its most privileged supporters, who lament the moral degeneration under Labour.

While the criticism of Labour’s track record on governance is justified, the narrative that everything is going to the dogs due to some defect in Labour’s genetic make-up is not just wrong but also counterproductive. Moreover, instead of fighting the noble battle for fairness and equal opportunities, the battle against corruption is often misconstrued as the exposure and condemnation of the undeserving bogans who have hijacked the country.

Breaking from this cycle is vital. But this requires a paradigm shift similar to that experienced by the party in the 1980s when the party had broadened its appeal beyond this restricted cohort. It did so not only by endorsing the welfare state, but also by promoting laissez faire in sectors like construction, which enabled a sizeable chunk of the population to become little rich people.

It was also in this context that a few unsophisticated building contractors like Charles Polidano, Salvu Ellul and Zaren Vassallo rose to the top to rival the traditional upper class in terms of power and influence. But for the past decade the PN has been in political wilderness, associated with the resentment of a privileged elite who simply resent the fact that others who are deemed unworthy of their same privileges have joined their ranks.

And while Labour’s policies have created havoc in matters like construction rules, the resentment of some social media pundits associated with the PN is often motivated by antipathy towards bogans whose greatest sin is not the unfair advantages they enjoy but their association with Labour.

The party can still express its opposition to Labour’s own laissez faire policies by advocating an alternative vision instead based on fairness and equal opportunities for all.

2.  The PN needs a vision that broadens its appeal instead of lashing out at Labour voters

PN supporters are often in the habit of lashing out at ordinary voters for being “bought” by Labour’s cheques and handouts. This ignores the reality that measures like abolishing exam fees and free public transport do make a difference in people’s everyday life.

The PN also remains dismissive of the gratitude felt by marginalised social groups like LGBTIQ people and cannabis smokers who can now live a life without fear.

Rather than shooting down these reforms and benefits, the PN should address those themes which Labour has ignored or not addressed head on. These include low incomes, wage stagnation and housing affordability. And while under Grech the PN has paid lip service to the idea of a living wage it has done so without coming up with a concrete proposal apart from the hard to sell and difficult to understand ESG proposal in its last electoral manifesto.

And to win votes from Labour, the PN needs to accept that some things done under Labour are good and are here to stay.

3. Majority of working-class voters want decency, fairness and a more livable environment

The PN can still fight its battle against corruption but has to do so without pretending to be immune from a disease which it knew very well when in power.

The impression given by some anti-Labour pundits is that successive Labour victories reflect a degeneration of society and an acceptance of corruption. But blaming ordinary voters for the sins of a corrupt government is a very bad tactic for any opposition party.

It is true that Labour has reinforced a system of patronage it inherited from the PN, but the majority of the population does not benefit from it and feels cheated.  So, the PN can capitalise on public outrage against favoritism.

Once again, the major problem facing the PN is one of credibility and authenticity.  Voters who grew up in the 1990s, fully know that Nationalist politicians can be as prone to dubious and corrupt dealings as Labour politicians. Many of the bête noires of the anti-corruption movement are prominent former Nationalists, including prominent former ministers like John Dalli who for a time had a good chance of becoming PN leader.  In fact, what skewed the battle against corruption was the attempt to turn it into a crusade against Labour’s defective DNA rather than a collective struggle for a better and fairer country. The very least the PN can do is to acknowledge some of its mistakes like the extension of building boundaries in 2006, while taking pride on other aspects of its legacy like Malta’s successful EU membership bid.

4. Re-inventing the PN on the EU referendum campaign model

The EU referendum campaign, which appealed to a wide constituency of voters including thousands of young people brought up in Labour-leaning working-class families could well be a blueprint for a regenerated PN in its bid to re-invent itself as an alternative to Labour.

The last time the PN commanded an absolute majority in the country was in the 2003 general election, which confirmed the result of a referendum in which the PN was in synch with a coalition of voters that included many who do not naturally identify with the party but were motivated by a desire to see a more prosperous, cleaner, fairer and in many aspects a more disciplined country.

Moreover, the PN’s campaign at that time elicited hope rather than anger and spite. Surely the party now lacks a similar appointment with history. But in a similar way to what Joseph Muscat effectively did in 2013, the PN can project itself as a big tent united by a commitment to fairness, pluralism and modernisation. One major challenge for the PN is how to deal with the country’s radically changed demography by embracing a cosmopolitanism with a human face, by for example standing up for the rights of foreign workers and offer a prospect of citizenship to the children of immigrants who were born and educated in Malta.

Surely this may not be the most popular proposal, but parties also gain respect for being principled and forward looking. Unfortunately, the PN is moving in the opposite direction by pandering to xenophobia and ultra traditionalist values which often clash with the European values which the party was once so proud of.

5. Mainstream conservative values out of synch with younger voters

The PN has to understand that society has changed and the mainstream conservative values of the past are increasingly out of synch with the values of younger voters who grew up after Malta joined the European Union and the watershed divorce referendum of 2011.

In the UK it was the Tory party, which led the country into the European Union in 1972 but it was elements from the same party who exploited resentment among left-behind communities to force the country out of the union.

It is no longer far-fetched to imagine the same happening in Malta. With Labour moving deep in its ideological territory, the PN may be tempted to outflank it from the conservative right  by taking a hard line against immigration and exploiting insecurities and fears. Lashing against Woke culture, re-evoking the (failed) war on drugs and opposing a timid reform of abortion rights to better protect the health of women, are symptomatic of the PN’s drift to the right.

This may work with a restricted category of older voters irrespective of their class background. But it will further alienate the party from one important segment of society; younger and educated voters hailing from working class backgrounds who resent elitism despite joining the ranks of the middle class but who are becoming more progressive and continental in mores and values.

It had to be political veteran Mario de Marco to recognise that people do not want a government interfering in their personal life and that “people have become more liberal than the PN and this was not always the case”. And while affirming the party’s pro-life stance as a matter of principle, de Marco is unique in his party in showing an understanding of the signs of the times.

With little prospects of ever becoming prime minister, Grech may at least dedicate his time in office to reposition his party on more solid centre ground while remembering that society has drastically changed since 2013 with views that were considered radical and edgy at that time becoming mainstream.

The risk is that to survive Grech may well take shortcuts to solidify his position among core voters in a way which actually increases the gap between the party and younger generations.  For it was Grech himself who ‘looked down’ on Andrea Prudente, a suffering mother, whom he belittled in a speech in parliament aimed at firing up the conservative brigade.