Through the Looking Glass

This article appeared in The Malta Independent on Sunday (08.06.08)

It’s been a hectic week but finally they have him – the one to head them in the battle for the next electoral victory. The war of attrition was long, and some sparks inevitably flew across the board between members of the same party. In the end he won – at least he won enough delegates to get the post. His opponent huffed and puffed for a while, still claiming that the popular vote lay elsewhere. Finally, common sense seemed to prevail and the once bitter opponents began the moves of reconciliation in a bid to unite the party.

What counts after all is what the winner said in his victory speech: “Whatever differences there exist between us, they pale into insignificance in comparison with those that exist between us and the other side.” That is where the Obama – Clinton camps currently stand as I type – unity in the face of McCain. Some disquisitions remain as to what role Hillary will take. Will she accept the baton of Vice-presidential candidate? In any case will Obama offer it? Whatever happens the Democrat house is rallying and preparing to take on the Republican behemoth and good for them. But we are more concerned about things closer to home aren’t we? Like Alice in Wonderland it’s been a crazy trip in Hamrun too… and that’s not thanks to the Cheshire Cat.

If Everybody Minded their Own Business

Was the Duchess’ wish to Alice. Much like the Labour party’s inner core and its reactions to the very public commentaries on the leadership contest. This was one of the points which brought out the differences within the party. Independently of what others think, this campaign was also a reality check for the Labour posse. They would tell the world what idea they have of the party of the future. The relative transparency of the leadership campaign (Discipline Committee permitting) was an injection of change. It happend despite the machine and not thanks to it. It drew battle lines – healthy ones – between factions and not cliques. There was a faction with a policy of openness – one that saw the need to change the whole nation into observer judges, one that even pushed for party members to have a right to choose the leader.

That faction understood that at this point the Labour party should become everybody’s business and that having an opinion about who should be the next leader was very much the business of the nation. They are not necessarily right or wrong. What was good at this stage was that there was a faction – with a set of ideas – and that the battles being fought were between different styles as much as between different personalities. From the beginning it was hoped that the contest would be about substance as much as about character. Charisma, ambition, qualifications may all be well and good but I was always sceptical about putting all the eggs in the leadership basket. The test this week was also about how the party’s elected representatives see themselves. The delgate’s verdict would not just tell us the leader – it would reveal the starting point for change… if any is to be had.

It’s a Poor Sort of Memory…

… that only works backwards. The Queen of Hearts baffles Alice with her nonsensical statements. In voting on Thursday and Friday (have I told you I am writing on Friday afternoon?) the delegates will also tell us whether they will agree to shelve all memories of the near past or to use the experience gained. To err is human while to persist in error is diabolical. I am quite sure that none of the delegates have satanical aspirations but the fear of change, fear of the unknown and the false comfort afforded by complacent mechanisms and structures might have much to play in this voting session. Do not be deceived by the spin – wherever it comes from. This is not really about Joseph Muscat or George Abela. In the end both will have to face a challenge to change the party and both might impose their tempo and timbre to the process. The slow, baby steps of change had already begun once the issues were out in the light for all to see. Muscat or Abela – Change is inevitable whoever got to be leader.

What is more telling than the leadership post itself is how the party is handling the contest. It is a clear sign of obstacles and bonuses the new leader will have to face or use in the future. Once you unspin the web of interests, policies, personalities and more you could get an idea of how fast the pace of change could work. The policies of the contenders remain an unfortunate question mark. You cannot really and truly associate a style of politics with one or the other. The spins, both positive and negative, hung about the election report and that ugly,misplaced notion of managerial politics. My “judgement” on the managerial issue is subjective. Others might rightly disagree but I do not see in managerial politics some magic formula for alternative government.

It Sounds Uncommon Sense

The Mock Turtle put his finger on it. Uncommon sense. Outsiders see this flirtation with stil managerjali as a useless, obsessive distraction from the real business of reform. Then there is this obsession with the youth vote. Missing the wood for the trees I would say. One fundamental issue is and will remain the politics that the labour party proposes. A party structure should serve the purpose of perfecting those policies. The Labour party has had its natural political breeding ground swept from under its feet by a social democrat Nationalist party. No amount of smiling faces could win them back. The next five years are pregnant with global economic uncertainty. The world is changing in a fast way that needs competent governments with sound policies to face the future. That too is why Sant lost out to Gonzi. Charisma does not get in the way of that.

All the peccadillos in the world could not outbalance the fact that Gonzi was the man with a plan. His hand is quite forced right now – rising prices of oil, food, services etc are not good news for gonziPN. Labour has had us used to an opposition that will gloat on the ills and point out to how prices are rising, and how only a Barun will survive the next wave of economic depression. True. But what would Labour do about it? Fantastical promises of reduction of surcharge from Harvard Economists did not do the trick. The people need an injection of confidence and have become masters at telling which promises can be fulfilled. That is a lesson Gonzi’s PN will surely learn the hard way. They might not publish an electoral report, their style of governance does not reflect their precarious win in the elections but they will be double careful next time round – as they should be. They know that the votes for next election will include those who abstained this time round as well as those who voted with their noses pegged.

Everything’s got a moral…

… if only you can find it. (Queen of Hearts) The delegates are not a cross-section of the voting population. They cannot be because they are part of a party – people who will always vote Labour because they strive for their party to be in government. Nobody is stupid enough to think otherwise. The way they exercised their vote showed us what priorities the current delegates have. The 50-50 split between Muscat and the rest can be interpreted as being the two faces of Labour. It is unfair to generalise the votes of 435 delegates. It is also slightly naive to fall for the nationalist spin of “il-magna laburista” wanting Muscat to win. The thing is that this does not just come out of Pietà. Falzon’s riling at the report and conspiracies against him, as well as Abela’s clear distancing from the Labour elite all point to the same thing. Coleiro’s votes might be added to the old guard – basing myself simply on the type of open backing Madame received. Bartolo’s votes are a question mark – which might simply boiling down to a number of delegates believing his would be a good kind of change.

So what does all that mean? It means that Labour is in two minds. Not with regard to Abela and Muscat but with regard to the type of change. In a way it is unfair that the leadership election had to hinge on this kind of background. It would have been much more serene for Abela and Muscat not to have the strings of the posts of people like Jason Micallef depending on the outcome of the election. It turns out that the election result will end up being like a decision of the Queen of Hearts: “Sentence first, Verdict later”. The media and the party machines are entitled to give their spin on Abela and Muscat – it’s their bread and butter. What will count however with regards to any of the two is the way they perform much later down the line. Presupposing, preempting and predetermining is for PR-columns. All puns intended.

The arena is open for dialogue. The establishment will have to come to terms with the new and with the return of the prodigal sons and daughters. My guess is that the new head will have to be more of a catalyst than a leader. A tandem formation of victor and vanquished will probably prove to be a faster remedy and solution for medium-term success. Obama and Hillary might provide the first lessons in this field. Yes we can is a slogan – an effective one. Translating it into positive action means shifting from marketing to action.

If You Don’t Know Where You are Going

… any road will take you there. I am not sure if Lewis Carroll was under the influence of drugs when he said that one. Mr Carroll too was the subject of speculation – the hookahs and mushrooms in his books gave him a reputation of some form of early drug abuser though it is more than possible that he did not go much further than the conventional use of laudanum – the standard painkiller of his time. Even before you started to read this column you knew who the new Labour leader is. This side of the time-space continuum there are still three hours before voting commences in Hamrun. The new leader, be it Abela or Muscat has all the cards on the table. He can read them as best he wishes but he should not take the process of change lightly. The voting process has shown a Labour party that is getting off the starting blocks with a moment of hesitation – and it can ill afford many more false starts. The possibility of doom and gloom has been avoided – with a touch of luck and circumstance.

It’s everybody’s business. Everybody needs a strong Labour party, a strong opposition and new options for the country. A party with an open mentality will be beneficial for all. A party willing to tackle the hitherto untackleable such as removing the MLPN grip on our mentality, reforming the electoral process, thinking in terms of the nation and its needs, and providing alternative policies of credible governance is in everybody’s minds – probably even more than of some delegates voting tonight. The soul searching is far from over. Getting comfortable in the new shoes will take some wear and tear on the way. That too is healthy. Yes they can, because together everything is possible.

Now I’ve got a plane to catch – land of Kinnie and Tastees … here I come.

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