Monday 22 April 2019

Sucking the soul out of a political party

When you speak of people who have militated within a political party all their lives out of true ideological conviction because they sincerely believe in the principles which that party stands for, you are speaking of people who are the backbone and the very essence of that party.

From what I have gathered, the eight employees who have been made redundant because the Nationalist Party’s printing press is being closed down are in this category.  The cruel irony, of course, is that the PN headquarters are colloquially known as L-istamperija, because for a long time it was this very printing press which was one of the symbols of free speech at a time when Mintoff was clamping down on all dissent from the press. So when word spread like wildfire this week that L-istamperija was closing down, shocked PN supporters understood it to mean that the entire building at Pieta was closing.

No, it is “just” these eight men who have lost their livelihood at a vulnerable point in their lives when they are close to retirement age, making it even more difficult for them to find new employment.

A party which is facing financial ruin has to make difficult choices; in fact the rumours that there would be downsizing have been circulating ever since the PN lost the election and the truth surfaced about just how badly in debt the party is. It is patently clear that those who were directly or indirectly “propping” up the party because it was in government have called in their debts and are now demanding payment. There can be no other explanation for this sudden admission that the Nationalist party is facing bankruptcy – it has been operating on borrowed money and time for too long. I liken it those people who for years live beyond their means and max out their credit cards until one day a true crisis or emergency hits them and their lifestyle collapses like a hollow house of cards.

So yes, it was to be expected that the PN would have to scale back on the number of staff on its books, but no one was quite ready for the news that the first to be axed would be their longest serving, most loyal employees who were there during Malta’s worst political turmoil. It was a cold-hearted, callous move which has shaken PN diehards to their very core – no one has expressed it more passionately than fiery journalist and broadcaster Liliana Risiott who has not minced her words in her scathing criticism of this decision.

There have been half-hearted comments that the PN would “help” these men find new jobs, but I think that the current PN administration has under-estimated just how badly this move would be taken by their supporters.  It is not just that these eight men are now redundant, which is a scary prospect for anyone, but it is the fact that by targeting these particular employees, the PN has continued to suck the very soul out of its own party.  It has completely lost sight of what made the party such a formidable force in the 80s, gathering people from all walks of life who were against the Mintoffian style of politics and who were clamouring for a much-needed change (talk about coming full circle).

The PN seems to be having a memory lapse, because it is forgetting that it was not your “typical PN supporter” which swept Eddie Fenech Adami into power over and over again. The core PN vote might be middle-class, English-speaking, church schooled Sliema, but that vote alone was not enough to win them the elections of ’87, ’92, ’98, 2003 and 2008.

It was the migration towards the PN of many, many blue collar workers (just like those eight men) who really secured victory for the party.  Throughout those decades, even voters who came from staunch Labour backgrounds deserted the PL in droves for a myriad of reasons and found that they had more in common with the principles being advocated by the PN. Paradoxically, for many ordinary, hard-working people, it was the PN which became the true “workers’ party” while the Labour party went through one party leader after another, Mintoff-KMB-Sant, but could never find its feet after it seemed to have completely lost its raison d’etre.

But what is happening now? The PN, with the appointment of Simon Busuttil as its leader, has become a cold, calculating almost heartless party which gauges people for their political expediency, while remaining utterly detached and distant, totally bereft of any passion. And a political party without passion is just an empty shell.

Take a look at the list of candidates for next year’s MEP elections. The list of names reads like a who’s who of Malta’s elite – no wonder that so many PN supporters are claiming they have never heard of any of them and are bitterly disappointed that their favourites have been left out. Personally, I think it was a wise decision to leave out the most well-known prospective candidate Jean Claude Micallef, not because I have anything against him personally, but because I feel that someone representing us in the EU Parliament should have a certain amount of background and maturity. “Popularity” alone does not cut it.

On the other hand, the candidates should not be so cut off from the ordinary voter that many are perplexed as to why they made the list. It is a balancing act between choosing someone, as we say in Maltese “ta’ stoffa” (of substance) yet who is still able to reach out to people.

A perfect example is Claudette Buttigieg who surprised everyone (including me) at being elected so easily to Parliament on her first try. While I had my doubts as to her suitability to be an MP, in retrospect I have realized that she has that perfect mix required for a successful politician.  Despite not having any political experience, she is a quick learner and does her research well, but above all her broadcasting background means she is a good communicator with that “common touch” which people like. When I listen to her speak I have noticed that she has that knack of  simplifying complex issues without sounding patronizing, bringing topics which may seem daunting down to an easy-to-understand level. She is, in a word, relatable.

Now take a look at the list of MEPs approved by the PN and tell me (with all due respect to their undisputed professional and intellectual attributes)…just how ‘relatable’ are they?

Now cast your minds back to Alfred Sant and why he never quite made the grade with diehard Labour supporters. The man is, without a doubt, an impressive academic and a brilliant writer; to this day I still meet people who lament that he was never given a real chance to prove himself as Prime Minister because his firm principles and unwavering integrity were qualities which are sorely missing from today’s political scene.

But what is the use of such qualities if your communication abilities are zero and you are unable to stir voters with an impassioned, heartfelt speech?

In stark contrast, Joseph Muscat works the media and the crowds like a pro, managing to get people on his side who I never in a million years imagined would ever vote Labour (although the jury is still out as to whether he will go down in history as a PM who was able to make sound, political decisions).  But eventually, just as has happened to the PN, he too is going to have to make tough decisions about the sustainability of the Labour party’s media and the number of staff on its books.

As the main character playing the US Vice-President in the sitcom VEEP likes to say, ‘politics is about people’. Yes, it is. And once you lose sight of that by treating people like so much discarded cardboard which is easily recyclable and replaceable then you have not only lost your soul as a political party.

You have also completely lost the plot.


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