Adrian Delia obtained 67% of the confidence vote held yesterday by the Nationalist Party’s General Council. Back in 2003, after losing two general elections in a row, Alfred Sant obtained the same result in a three-way leadership race. That contest settled the leadership question within the Labour Party but not the electability question with the public at large.
Five years later, Labour managed to let the PN win its third general election on the trot. Labour saw Sant as the answer to the question: how can we quickly dampen down the turmoil? Voters saw Sant as the answer to: What is Labour’s message about our new EU membership?
In the run-up to yesterday’s vote, some wrong questions were asked. It’s curious how many were drawn from sport, as though conventional sporting wisdom is somehow a reliable guide to politics and principle.
Should a horse be changed in mid-race? Should a Formula 1 driver be blamed for a mechanic’s botch-up in the pit stop?
No, but who cares? Switching horses is against the rules; changing a leader isn’t. The questions about Delia’s leadership are raised because of his own reckless driving, so to speak; his personal trust rating is in freefall.
Anyhow, the motion was brought before the General Council not in mid-race but after the end of two ‘races’ – local and European elections.
The most mind-melting analogy was brought up by Delia himself just after the May election results. He asked if a football coach could be blamed for bad results by the team.
Yes, actually, coaches are sacked for bad team results all the time.
That’s not the worst of it. By way of excuse, Delia said he ‘inherited’ his team and hasn’t been able to choose his own thus far. I don’t know what’s more shocking: a former football club president unaware that it’s club administrations that authorise buying and selling, or the leader of a democratic party suggesting that he should personally indicate which PN candidates the public should vote for.
Instead of engaging with doubters, Delia has a knack of confirming their doubts about his democratic instincts.
But why draw analogies with sport in the first place? The world is full of examples – from Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – of how mature political parties act when successive polls and electoral results show that a leader is seriously not connecting with the target voters. The leader is changed.
Some Delia supporters have seen the crucial question as one of loyalty. Previous PN leaders did not always command assent for political positions they favoured – but they always commanded loyalty.
So is Delia the answer to this question: Is the PN a party founded on loyalty?
It’s a good question but confused on two matters. First, in practice, it has conflated loyal dissent, intended to improve the party’s fortunes, with dissent that made things worse.
The councillors who put Delia’s leadership to the vote did so out of loyalty. So are the MPs who have challenged Delia behind closed doors, or else pursued a vociferous line against government corruption, at a time when Delia was conspicuously less vocal. They should not be made to appear unprincipled when it’s principle that has been driving them.
The second confusion concerns cause and effect. Loyalty has been stressed as the basis of Party unity. True, but only up to a point. The PN has not floundered because it is divided. It has been divided because it’s floundering in the polls.
So it’s one thing to say that, following yesterday’s vote, PN politicians should not question Delia’s position as leader until after the next general election (barring some ruinous scandal). Yesterday’s vote has to be taken as final for this legislature, otherwise, it’s rendered meaningless.
It’s another thing to expect that, just because the internal Party issue is settled for now, then the Party’s fortunes should improve. That would only be true if division is the cause of the bad results.
In fact, the PN has been divided because it has lacked a message that is sufficiently compelling and relevant to attract voters. The PN has not had a message to unite it.
No message, no public support, no united Party.
For the PN to become competitive, it has to have policies built on a reformist, long term vision of economy and society. With Louis Galea now heading the think tank, AZAD, that can happen.
But a Party’s message is also incarnated by its leader. And the PN has just told the voting public that Adrian Delia is its message.
With that fraction of the middle class that the PN needs to win back, Delia is a message associated with cronyism, misjudgements, personal indiscipline, and troubling questions about undisclosed, compromising obligations.
No amount of policy development and displays of unity can cancel that message. Either Delia addresses the issues head-on, or he will continue to be a major liability with voters, no matter how many General Council meetings hail him as a trump card.