PN: voice, exit, loyalty - Ranier Fsadni

PN: voice, exit, loyalty - Ranier Fsadni

The Nationalist Party has not lost its mind. It has lost its voice. But because almost everyone thinks it has lost its collective mind, it’s being treated for mania and possession by evil spirits. Which would drive any voice-impaired patient beside himself with rage and helplessness.

To identify the problem as loss of voice is not to minimise it. It’s to warn against the wrong medicine.

A political party can change its mind and remain itself. It cannot change, let alone lose, its collective voice without losing its identity. To hear your party speak with a different voice is to refuse to believe that what you’re hearing is true.

It’s the voice that conveys personality and authority. It offers reassurance and builds trust. It’s through conversing –  within its confines and beyond – that a party gathers and composes itself as one.

Without a steady collective voice, it not only cannot speak, it cannot act. It cannot make requests or pacts. It cannot build enduring relationships. It cannot enthuse and mobilise, show solidarity and make a promise. Without a singular collective voice, a party is paralysed.

Some might say that all this is obvious but mistakes the symptom for the cause: its internal divisions that lead to the loss of voice. I’m suggesting the problem is the opposite. It’s the loss of voice that is generating the distrust and bitter quarrels.

The loss of collective voice dates back to the days when the party was united around a leader. The loss of voice had many symptoms. One was the atrophy of the social network. Another was the increasing irrelevance of its media.

A third was, paradoxically, the loss of vision. What we call political ‘vision’ is really interpretive speaking: being able to interpret ordinary people’s aspirations, against a background of social and economic forces, to mobilise everyone into a joint effort of history-making. By 2013, the PN had long stopped being considered a history-maker.

So apparent was the loss of voice of a once confident, eloquent and enthusing party, that many people couldn’t believe it. So they assumed that another confident, eloquent voice – that of Daphne Caruana Galizia – was the real voice of the party. This, even though she never held back from showing her contempt for the party’s pre-1977 history, or from delivering sharp public criticism at inconvenient moments; and even though for long years the top echelons of the party had regarded her with, at best, guarded ambivalence. 

Until 2013, the voice of the PN-led government disguised the loss of partisan voice. Afterwards, in Opposition, it could not be hidden.

Part of the problem was stage fright. The 2013 electoral drubbing drained the PN’s confidence. But it was more than that. Many rank-and-file Nationalists, as well as MPs, had difficulty recognising their party’s voice in the changes of policy and strategic choices that Simon Busuttil advocated.

Hence why it is so misleading for the media and others to describe the PN, today, as divided into two factions, one clustered around Adrian Delia, the other around Busuttil.

It is mistaken to speak of a faction of which Busuttil is the leader. Several of the MPs publicly protesting against the decision to ask him to resign from the PN parliamentary group are MPs known to have (internally) opposed, or shown diffidence to, many of his proposals when he was leader. Even their voting record during this Parliament shows that they do not take his lead.

It is more precise to speak of one faction, clustered around Delia, and a looser ad hoc group of politicians who don’t think his judgement is authoritative, compelling, or even right, since they don’t hear their party’s voice in his.

In one sense, that is objectively true. Nothing illustrates the lack of party dialogue than Delia’s belated discovery of the widespread resistance to the pressure on Busuttil to resign.

A mere truce – the absence of conflict – will not solve the problems. It is not the quarrels that are causing the loss of collective voice

In another sense, however, the party’s voice – muffled and distorted – can be heard in the election, by a wide plebiscite, against the odds, of Delia as leader. You can, like me, believe he has often offered the wrong answers to the party’s problems, but still believe that the movement that led to his election was raising the right questions.

A year ago, it was difficult to follow Delia’s campaign and not pick up the revolutionary fervour in the mood of some of his closest collaborators. They saw themselves at the head of a revolution – first, in the PN, then in society.

I believe this fervour was fed by more than just personal ambition and grievances. These men were correctly picking up signals and aspirations – a politics of identity, if you like – to which any political party should pay respectful attention.

Politicians capable of picking up signals that others missed have an important contribution to give to any incarnation of the PN. Shutting them up or ridiculing them does not solve the problem of voice.

Four conclusions follow from this diagnosis:

(1) A mere truce – the absence of conflict –  will not solve the problems. It is not the quarrels that are causing the loss of collective voice. It’s the lack of routine internal dialogue that keeps generating distrust in what the other is saying.

A truce will give false hope. A healing will be suggested by the August lull, followed by the cheer of the September Independence celebrations.

But the lack of dialogue and suspicion will continue at committee level. It will hamper the PN at the MEP elections. The party will find itself, a year from now, having lost an MEP seat or two. It will then turn the guns once more on itself, while Labour celebrates its self-renewal and a planned leadership succession.

(2) The suggestion of exit – forming a breakaway party – shows complete detachment from the real problems. There is the sheer ignorance of what goes into the setting up and running ofa political party.

More importantly, it doesn’t solve the problem of voice. The politicians who are sceptical about Delia’s judgement don’t have a single collective voice. They would have broken away from the PN and simply added to their original problem.

(3) Another false solution is the one insisted on by Delia’s group, which is to say that the party’s collective voice is given by loyalty to the leader.

No, it’s not. The voice of the human body is not given only by the head. Voice production comes from the entire body: mental attitude, posture, muscle relaxation, breathing…

It’s the same with a collective political voice. Its production has to be organic and networked. Eddie Fenech Adami became the voice of the PN after a long, organised process of consultation with the grassroots and within the party structures.

(4) It follows that the party needs to appoint, as it were, a voice coach. Someone with knowledge of the party structures, above suspicion of personal ambition, who can organise the kind of long-term reflection and debate, between people of widely differing views, out of which a party’s composed, authoritative voice emerges.

It is likely that such voice coaching cannot take place within the party proper. It may take a ‘safe space’ like AŻAD. (Since I once served as AŻAD’s president, I should immediately clarify I have no interest in serving in any AŻAD function.)

It’s my belief there’s still time for such a project to be launched with a view to minimising the damage at the MEP elections. It’s the only way, I think, for the PN to find itself, this time next year, eyeing its 140th anniversary in 2020 with hope rather than despair.

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