A political newcomer, Bernard Grech, the new PN leader, is in many ways a cipher. His judgment and instincts are largely untested. But one paradox of his tenure is already clear.
Groucho Marx once quipped that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. To succeed as Leader, Grech must become a passionate Groucho Marxist. He must turn the PN into an organisation that would never again have to choose someone like him to lead it.
Not someone like him? I am not, of course, referring to the likeable TV personality who was able to attract the attention of many PN party members looking for an alternative to Adrian Delia.
Do not underestimate the political qualities needed to (a) be trusted by the Party leader to represent the PN position on popular talk shows; (b) defend the Party position well enough to attract sympathisers’ attention, while (c) being subliminally subversive enough to persuade viewers that you are preferable to the unpopular leader.
But these are not the only qualities a leader needs. In a functioning Party, the choice generally falls on a leader with longer political experience, and whose judgment is known and tested.
The fact that the PN members turned, for the second time in three years, to an outsider, someone who’s never run for office, is a reflection on the disarray in the PN.
It is this disarray that Grech must make sure is never repeated. In such a state, the PN cannot become a competitive force. The PN is depleted in morale, volunteers, organisation and finances. But above all, it is depleted in trust in its own politicians’ good faith.
In his largely gracious concession remarks, Delia couldn’t resist a barb against his opponents in the parliamentary group. He suggested the voters’ choice of an outsider was a rejection of the established MPs. But it’s not that simple.
It’s true that Grech was selected as the sole candidate to challenge Delia because other possible challengers — like Roberta Metsola and Therese Comodini Cachia — are not as popular. But that’s not a simple reflection on the two women and others.
It was thanks to Delia that Grech had a free run of the airwaves, in discussions in which he was bound to look good with Party members. Active politicians in Delia’s PN had more limited opportunities. What they did, or didn’t do, was scrutinised for hidden agendas or backbone. Their words were read for what they implied about Delia.
Or else they tended to be associated with particular areas (like the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry or the European Parliament), and not regarded as politicians with broader visions. Given more exposure, and more time, they might have come into their own as national leaders. But they had neither.
The divisions within the Party shaped public perception of the PN’s experienced politicians. They didn’t have the conventional spaces to become better known, and the occasions that gave them prominence were also occasions that made them seem divisive or associated only with one cause. A leader needs to be known for a broader, constructive vision.
These were circumstances shaped by more than one individual, but a prominent role was played by Delia and his team. You could seriously say that Delia played the most important role in the selection of Grech as his opponent.
None of this means that Grech was the wrong choice or even second-best. It does mean that this is no way for a Party in good health to choose a leader.
Grech’s victory speech was hot on unity and journeys, while vague about detail. It couldn’t be otherwise. He won because he was the candidate of process and dialogue, against the candidate that sidelined proper structured debate.
The best he can offer at the moment is unity of purpose. The blueprint for the process is in place. It’s the revised PN statute, which provides for new internal elections to a range of decision-taking bodies going all the way to the top.
If he can attract a wide range of people to participate in the PN’s structures, then unity of purpose can give way to unity of voice.
The Party has had no such voice since 2009 when it was seen as such a fuddy-duddy on civil liberties that some of its MEP candidates that year simply began to strike out a political identity of their own.
Between 2013 to 2016 the Party then adopted liberal positions in parliament, or at least did not oppose them. But since it didn’t give principled reasons, it didn’t sound authentic.
It’s noteworthy that the PN temporarily recovered its voice and its then-leader Simon Busuttil became a much better public speaker, just when the PN mobilised all together — against corruption. But it never mobilised in favour of a constructive vision of economy and society.
After 2017, all mobilisation and unity were lost. The PN acquired the reputation of being barking mad.
Unity of voice in a political party is not just a matter of loyalty. It comes from social intelligence — being able to read society. That comes from having a good representation of the whole of society in the Party structures.
Next comes the dialogue through which those voices can converge in harmony, and recognise themselves in a common narrative and destiny. That’s where a leader’s judgment can make a real difference — in evaluating and selecting the salient components, and making them persuasive.
But for Grech to fulfil this role, he must let other politicians acquire the experience and stature needed to articulate their constituents’ concerns. Let him also welcome outsiders, as long as they don’t remain that.
Here’s Grech’s paradox restated. He fails if he’s seen as the PN’s only hope since a belittled PN makes him a smaller figure. He succeeds the more voters can look at the PN and see many potential leaders, since that’s a Party that is confident and secure.