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The life of the party

"We need to listen more before taking decisions" - Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

"We need to listen more before taking decisions" - Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

Labour Party president Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi is responsible for coordinating the sweeping reforms being deliberated this weekend. He answered, and diplomatically avoided, Herman Grech's questions.

The Labour Party is proposing a number of reforms, but critics say that the delegates' choices of top party officials a few months ago have to a certain extent guaranteed the status quo. Are such claims wrong?

I don't think you can tie the two things together. The renewal process in the party's structures started after the delegates elected the new administration. The delegates are in the meantime analysing the work carried out in the past and deliberating on the new courageous proposals. I would say the delegates are realising the need for the party to embark on a process of renewal.

Many believe that the individuals elected or confirmed to the top posts - like Jason Micallef, Alex Sceberras Trigona, Toni Abela and Anġlu Farrugia - are detached from the middle-class and could object to the drastic changes that the party needs.

The conference will be sending the message that this is a progressive party; it needs to renew itself to address the country's needs.

So do you think the party can renew itself with the same individuals who have been occupying the same seat for years?

I've also been in my post for a number of years. I don't think we should point fingers at any individuals. We should not be looking at how long individuals have served in the party but we need to address the realities with the tools of the party.

And you believe that the current team understands this need?

The team needs to be seen in the context of the general conference, which will approve the proposals.

How are the delegates reacting to the proposal that they will not be the ones to select the next leader?

The proposal specifies that members who have served in the party for a minimum of five years will take part in the congress (to select the leader). The delegates understand that this is a new political message - we're going to be the first political party in Malta to actively involve members in the political perspectives. We're opening discussion to everybody.

Isn't it odd that this proposal is being made shortly after the delegates shot down Marlene Pullicino's proposal to enable members to select the new leader?

That proposal was different.

In what way?

At the time, the emphasis was on whether it was the opportune moment to carry out the change. The leadership contest had already started; it would have shifted the goalposts. The conference had discussed the need to reflect on the Pullicino proposal. Her proposal was also somewhat different - she proposed that every member had the right to vote; the proposal we're making is that the conference will first decide to whittle down the number of leadership candidates to two - and (that those who vote) need to be paid-up members for five years.

The party is suggesting the setting up of the organisation called Ideat. Is it an admission of the intellectual poverty which has reigned among the 900 delegates?

It's not the case. We have a number of foundations, each of which emphasises the need to open up debate. When we looked at the way the party resources were spread out and duplicated we decided to gather everyone in one institution.

Is the party convinced that the current delegates are the right people to reflect...

...the delegates were chosen through general conferences in their localities. We provided training all across the board.

The reform is clearly intended to make the party younger at its core...

...I think it's better to say that we're better represented across all ages.

Do you fear alienating the elderly in the process, which, let's face it, are the group that have stood by the party for years?

The party needs to better reflect the ages all across society.

So do you think everybody in the Labour Party acknowledges the need for change?

I think the spirit of the need for change is being acknowledged. Everyone knows this party needs to make an objective reflection.

You are proposing the revision of the MLP emblem and even the party's name. Is the new Labour Party ashamed of its past?

Not at all. The emblem is designed that way for historical reasons. The proposal is to retain and update the symbol of the burning torch, against the backdrop of the Maltese flag colours and the name of the party.

Don't you think the torch emblem is still going to create a link with the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s?

It depends who you're referring to. There could be an element of sentimentality. Symbols are important, but it is the substance of a party that is most important.

Why did it take so long for the MLP to eradicate outdated structures like the Brigata Laburista?

The Brigata Laburista will mark its 50th anniversary in September. Some structures have developed because of historical reasons - they can't be taken out of the context of why they were set up in the first place.

But the brigade is the equivalent to the indoctrination of children.

Though its name hasn't changed, the brigade's aim has evolved along the years. Recently it has served educational, rather than political purposes. The only difference is that it remained a branch of a political party - and therefore it could create this association with the indoctrination of children.

Should children be linked with a political party?

That's why we're saying that the educational aspect of this branch (the brigade) should be assumed by other structures. If children are learning something, it's not indoctrination.

The feedback to the proposals so far hasn't been negative. Why did it take so long for the party to come up with them when the changes were so obvious?

A political party always has its priorities. The MLP has undergone so many changes in the past few months. It was obvious to go for it now.

Louis Grech, Karmenu Vella and yourself were mainly responsible for drawing up the proposals...

The proposals were drawn up by several people. Louis and Karmenu were responsible for drawing up the corporate aspect of the changes. I was coordinating.

Why wasn't Jason Micallef involved in drawing up these proposals?

Jason made a contribution as a party administration member.

As general secretary, and therefore one of the most important posts within the party, shouldn't he have been more actively involved?

He made a contribution like other officials.

What kind of contribution?

The proposals weren't drawn up by specific individuals. We went through several. Jason Micallef made a contribution.

You've been president of the party for five years. Did you envisage you were going to lose the election?

We had very favourable indications. When you think that a mere 700 votes could have swayed the result, the analysis is different. I was very optimistic that we would have won the election.

If you carried out the reforms a year or two ago, do you believe you would have stood a better chance of winning the election?

You can't make comparisons that way.

The report drawn up after the election defeat confirmed the internal problems weighing down the Labour Party. As president, were you aware of these cracks? Did you try to patch things up?

The most important thing in a political party is to put forward the party's agenda and not the individual's. The success of a party depends on how united it is.

Do you believe your party is united?

I believe there are ways and means of working better together.

What about the fact that a prominent MP like Michael Falzon says he cannot work with Jason Micallef?

Michael Falzon is making a strong contribution in the sector he's shadowing. The important thing is to extract the best qualities of the individual for the benefit of the party.

As party president, have you tried to intervene to bring certain individuals closer together?

Sometimes I managed, sometimes I failed. The most important thing is for the party to be united, irrespective of the problems on an individual level.

Did you try to intervene to heal the rift between Mr Micallef and Mr Falzon?

They're both friends of mine, and I am always ready to help.

But has there been an attempt to bring these two closer together?

Ultimately, we need to find ways and means of make the best contribution for the benefit of the party.

Before the last election, did you have the liberty to speak out against the ideas/structures you disagreed with?

At an internal level, I always expressed my opinion.

Like what? Can you identify something you disagreed with?

Whatever I said internally, should remain there. But I always expressed an opinion - and whenever a decision was taken, I abided by it.

You have served under two leaders. How different is Joseph Muscat to Alfred Sant?

The age factor for a start... Joseph is just a few months younger than me. I had the opportunity to work with Dr Sant. It was a learning curve for me since I became president of the party at 30. I exchanged ideas with Dr Sant who also served as president. Of course, every character is different... but the fact that Joseph Muscat is roughly my age makes a difference.

Is Dr Muscat more open to ideas?

I think he expresses them better than Dr Sant.

Did Dr Sant provide the necessary space for ideas?

There was a discussion within the party but I think Dr Muscat is presenting a more open party and he's managing to put it across better.

As president, do you feel you now have more input in the Labour Party?

Comparisons are odious. All I can say is that at a party level, the need for a more open party is coming across better than it did until some time ago.

Do you think Dr Muscat was the best choice for party leader?

I think he is making a very positive contribution. It wouldn't be fair to compare him with the other four contenders who haven't had the chance to serve. But I think Dr Muscat is transmitting the message of the need for change.

Labour's critics say that Dr Muscat will be unable to carry out the necessary changes while some high profile officials hang like albatrosses around his neck.

It's not right to mention specific individuals. Ultimately, we need to look at the kind of service this party is giving to the country. The proposals, the service and constructive criticism that this party is making is what we should be looking at.

Once this re-evaluation and renewal process is over, do you fear that there will still be a good section of the population which will never get close to the Labour Party because of its past?

It would be my duty and that of my colleagues to relay the message that the MLP can give the best service to the country.

You're not answering the question. Don't you fear that the MLP will always remain associated with the violence perpetrated in the 1980s?

Won't there always be people who can never associate themselves with the Nationalist Party because of the events of the 1960s? At the same time, I believe we should convince people that our political project is the best one for the country.

But how can you convince people that the MLP is a renewed party when some of its current top officials were connected with the 1980s?

You have to look at the party's contribution to the country.

These same individuals are still involved prominently in your party.

Ultimately, you have to look at the solutions the party is proposing.

Where does the MLP stand today? Do you really think it's centre-left?

In the proposals, we are making it clear that democratic socialist principles will be the base of the party. We need to work towards a social Europe. At local level, we need to make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to succeed in the education and employment sectors. You can measure the success of society by weighing the progress of the weak. This is the party we want to put forward.

The Labour Party is now using every available opportunity to wave the European flag. Are you convinced that the majority of your members really acknowledge that the MLP is a pro-EU party?

Time is proving what it really means to be an EU member. As a country we are also understanding what we need to do to succeed in Europe. We need to exploit the opportunities of EU membership and this is an exercise which is being carried out in the MLP. I sincerely believe that, so far, the Labour Party has made a positive contribution at European level.

So why have at least two individuals presented themselves as prospective MEP candidates on the Labour ticket when they are clearly EU sceptics?

We should discuss the MEP line-up when the Labour Party approves its candidates. A number of people have expressed their wish to contest on behalf of the Labour Party but it's premature to comment. However, contrary to other parties, we have very specific guidelines on what it takes to be an MLP candidate.

What will make Labour a winning party in four years' time?

The Labour Party should strengthen its ties with the public. It should express its vision better. We need to coordinate better within the party and this is why we're carrying out these reforms. We need to listen more before taking decisions. But when we decide we will be able to convince the electorate that we're the best party to govern.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com.

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