Picking your battles - Ranier Fsadni
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Picking your battles - Ranier Fsadni

Labour has overseen the shift in emphasis from massive electoral campaigns. Of course, it outspends everyone during campaigns. But its focus is now on the pre-campaign.

Labour has overseen the shift in emphasis from massive electoral campaigns. Of course, it outspends everyone during campaigns. But its focus is now on the pre-campaign.

Last week’s online poll in this newspaper showed the stark disparity between the Labour and Nationalist parties. If a general election were held tomorrow, the poll asked, how would you vote? The vote was consistent from the beginning to eight thousand clicks later: PN 40 per cent, Labour 22 per cent. Hats off, Labour.

No one was fooled, of course. The poll was a stark reminder of Labour’s current strength: its ability to get its online troops to hold back from voting, if not to vote for the adversary, to make sure the PN remained ahead. Meanwhile, in the offline world, the party that ostensibly is tearing ahead of the governing party is actually tearing itself apart.

That’s the disparity. The ability of Labour to mobilise versus the inability of the PN to do so in any meaningful way.

The issue is not just a matter of discipline. It’s a matter of a wholesale shift in how Labour does politics.

Adrian Delia’s now infamous rallying email to his Administrative Council was criticised for its warlike imagery. Yes, it is a blunder for a leader to speak in those terms. But it’s also revealing of more than a Manichean apocalyptic attitude. Delia was calling his troops for the kind of political confrontation of the past: two massed armies gathered on a battlefield for a single decisive campaign.

Yet, if Labour has had two massive general election victories, it is because it has stopped fighting single, massive political battles. It has transformed the nature of its forces, campaigns and goals.

First, it has adapted to the twilight of mass political parties and mass political organisations, like trade unions, which have also seen their influence reduced in the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy. (The two sectors with notably strong unions, health and education, are exceptional precisely because they are areas where mass action is still immediately effective.)

The downscaling of mass organisations has been accompanied by a shift from class politics (to do with economic equality and solidarity) to the politics of identity, which has to do with expanding the sphere of civil rights and liberties.

It’s a claim for legal status and recognition for their private choices as consumers. It’s as political and aspirational as class politics (which is why it damaged the PN when Daphne Caruana Galizia’s personal views on social status were successfully spun, by Labour, to be representative of the PN’s). But it calls for a different kind of political engagement.

In an age of the politics of identity, the PN’s sense of identity has been nearly destroyed. No wonder it seems irrelevant

It’s more informal and calls for more privatised forms of communication – by under-the-radar Facebook groups, online trolls, and “customer care’’, rather than hierarchical committees. If we must use the imagery of war, then the shift is to guerillas, using light weaponry and mingling in the civilian population.

Next, Labour has overseen the shift in emphasis from massive electoral campaigns. Of course it outspends everyone during campaigns. But its focus is now on the pre-campaign, the informal undeclared battle for positioning onself and the adversary.

One way this has happened has been by the reduction in the number and frequency of campaigns. In the recent past, between general elections, a government was electorally tested nearly every year in local council ballots. It was possible for a government to be bruised by its own supporters. Winning local council elections didn’t necessarily predict victory at general elections but it certainly provided the opportunity for the Opposition to have intense high-energy gatherings that kept morale boosted.

Now, with the bunching of all local council elections, once every five years, the Opposition is deprived of that avenue of publicising its message, mobilising support and boosting morale. By avoiding battle, the government maintains its aura of invincibility, which also damages the Opposition’s ability to attract support.

In the past, the pre-campaign used to begin, surreptitiously, a few months before the formal campaign. Now, the pre-campaign is permanent, individually targeted and private. To the soundbite is added the online pop-up, thanks to massive harvesting of personal data.

Dealing with trolls on your Facebook page can be tense and wearing. But that’s because it’s constant not because it’s high intensity. It is difficult for others to identify with you, or even for you to know for sure if you’re imagining things or not.

Such permanent messaging is also very expensive. But since it is not a formal campaign, the source of financing  doesn’t need to be accounted for.

Third, Labour has also redefined the aims of campaigning. It no longer aims necessarily to win  people over to an idea. It aims not to win minds and hearts but to leave the other side’s supporters feeling like a displaced population, lacking a country and a home – lacking confidence in their ability to read their own society; distrusting of their leaders’ judgements; cynical about the point of solidarity and altruism.

With considerable help from the PN itself, Labour has succeeded. In an age of the politics of identity, the PN’s sense of identity has been nearly destroyed. No wonder it seems irrelevant.

It doesn’t mean that the PN is condemned to be irrelevant. The ongoing plundering of the State’s resources is not sustainable. A time will come when political leaders will be needed, wherever we can find them, to pull us out of real trouble. And they will not succeed unless they are credible themselves and able to make forceful appeals to solidarity and the common good.

For all Opposition politicians, the time to build that credibility is now. If they cannot build and maintain trust among themselves, if they are incapable of solidarity, they are no leaders and, worse, they risk being incapable of raising the leaders of the future.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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