The election result can be dissected in matters of ideology, presentation, language and methods. The ideological question is whether, given the territory occupied by Labour in the civil liberties space and the economic management space, the PN was reduced to an identity orphan unsure of what it wants to be.
The PN has traditionally enjoyed the support of Catholic voters who align their political views to the Roman Catholic Church, which can be rather uncompromising. This has been a shrinking crowd but it is nonetheless still substantial and does not take kindly to being ignored. The PN has been struggling to find its space since the divorce referendum.
It’s not that there are no Catholics supporting Labour. However, Labour relies less heavily on their votes and Joseph Muscat has figured out this is a battle he always wins. The PN has conversely figured out this is a battle it can’t stop losing. In flimsier times it tried to quit the battlefield with abstentions, and now it took an if-you-cannot-beat-them-join-them attitude. It played that game hoping it would neutralise Labour’s advantage but quite possibly all it managed to achieve is for some of its more traditional voters to wonder what the point is anymore.
Over the first 50 years after independence there had never been doubt that the PN was the party of economic innovation, opening, diversification and growth. If you wanted space for your initiative to grow, normality and calm, sensible international relations under which to trade, the PN were the obvious choice and Labour your nightmare. Right down to Gonzi’s last days when his ratings were at their lowest, the consensus was that our performance through the 2008 crisis was miraculous.
Muscat has turned that around. Having bullied the PN into apologising for its existence and regretting all that it stood for before 2013, he forced the PN, its supporters and neutral bystanders to forget the Nationalists’ economic credentials, never mind promoting them when campaigning. Once again, core support of the PN was left wondering what the point of their loyalty was.
Wherever it is that Labour gets its funding, it certainly has the skills to convert it into glitzy campaigning. Out of whatever obscure arrangements it may have made to pay for it, it projects an image of professionalism and contemporaneity.
The PN far from embarrassed itself with the quality of its own campaign. It delivered an attractive campaign that, leaving aside for the moment its content, projected a party that recovered in no time from its recent quasi-bankruptcy. But again, halfway through a 10-year period, witnessing equally good quality presentation, many found themselves not finding a reason to make a change.
The PN did have one disadvantage, possibly the only real consequence of the obvious handicap of the Prime Minister calling an election so soon. Its electoral programme, replete with evidence of the party’s eminent capacity to run the country, was published too late in the day to make any real impact. Its use now will be as a first template for the next election.
It is maliciously simplistic to classify the language used in the campaigns as “positive” and “negative”. But Muscat’s success in boiling it down to these two generic labels and having everyone accept them is in itself another pillar of Labour’s success. Theoretically, in a democracy, dialectic is confrontational by design. How else can we crystallise the arguments we are presented with and make a choice?
Labour’s social networking is as strong as ever and it is renewed with younger and newer voters in places the PN can barely reach
Having made Labour a clone of the pro-European, pro-markets, pro-fiscal discipline PN, Muscat went on to rain on what was left of the PN – particularly its mission to keep Muscat’s own foibles in check – as the moans of a treasonous cabal intent on disloyal sabotage. The PN, in this narrative, were critical of Labour not because they were justified but because they were envious of its success.
It is a testament to Muscat’s success in selling this perverse narrative that, as had happened in 2013, many in the PN seem to be buying this and bending over to apologise for hitherto doing their job well as an opposition.
But it is on the streets that Labour won this war. And on that front it met little resistance. The PN’s methods of campaigning have evolved with those of other Western European democracies of our time where parties communicate with the public as a broad audience and seek to have their message resonate as widely as possible. Over time, the PN dropped its more conventional ability to mobilise like the mass-parties of earlier times. But in Western democracies of our time no party hopes to gain over 50 per cent to win an election or join government. It is exceptional that that is just what you need to do in Malta.
The PN’s philosophy for our society is to bring about an environment were less politics is needed, not more. Traditional PN voters have come to expect this and treat any attempt to even communicate with them as an annoyance. I have been on the sheepish end of many a telephone call from party quarters reminding people to go out to vote on Election Day and getting all sorts of insults because that call was somehow an unacceptable invasion of privacy.
This one simple example represents the loss of town and street mobilisation: the old networks of street leaders, volunteers, particularly young ones, committed activists at the workplace, members of the community who are known and recognised as part of the social network of the party. The only people who are still in the role are over 70 and the only people still aware of them are over 50. They are not only literally a dying breed. They are treated as an embarrassment, a legacy of a past we cannot wait to forget.
Labour does not think that way. Its social networking is as strong as ever and it is renewed with younger and newer voters in places the PN can barely reach. Confronted by the vacuum left by the PN it has penetrated traditional PN strongholds who now ironically complain they have been ignored by their grand old party.
A party cannot rely on parliamentary candidates to do this work in the community. The efficient use of a candidate’s time is competing with their colleagues where the meat is thick and the votes for the party are already secure.
Winning over 50 per cent of the vote requires work where the prospects are slim and hostility likely. No candidate has time for that. That is the job for the party boys and girls. But the PN had started winding down that infrastructure already from 1996, and as the great European cause lulled it into supreme self-confidence it let this entire edifice rot to the point where now it barely exists.
Not so Labour. You will note I barely mention corruption and the core reasons why Labour should have lost this election. Not that I no longer think it should have. ‘Should’ is the operative word here in the normative sense, as in it deserved to lose. But if there’s one big take from this is that ‘should’ is beside the point. It’s how you fight the battle that counts, and Labour won it fair and square.
The PN should not waste time examining its own conscience. There’s nothing wrong with its conscience. Its heart is very much in the right place. It needs to get busy rebuilding limbs in order to climb this mountain.
Manuel Delia is an LSE graduate in Comparative Politics, worked for 16 years in the Fenech Adami and Gonzi administrations and unsuccessfully contested the 2013 elections on the PN ticket.
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