Life membership: what does that even mean?

Life membership: what does that even mean?

To be a member of the PN one must be a Maltese citizen of at least 16 years of age and accept the statute and the discipline of the party. There’s a safety clause in the statute that also requires a party member to be approved by the party’s executive committee or an official delegated for the task by them.

Age and citizenship are quite straightforward. Accepting the statute in and of itself is not likely to be an issue unless you have problems with human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, dialogue, tolerance, justice, solidarity and subsidiarity. If you tick all those boxes you should be fine.

For that is indeed the definition of a broad church party, one that aspires for more than half the population to support it in an election if it’s to be of much use.

Though I voted PN all my adult life it was not until I decided to contest the 2013 election that I signed up as a member. No one asked me to show my membership card when I was first called up to work for Eddie Fenech Adami or any time after that. A party card was not required to demonstrate my credentials, my commitment, my politics and my convictions. But no one can run on the party’s list unless they are its member. Fair enough.

For the sole purpose of convenience, I signed up as a life member in the party which spared me having to remember to renew my card. It could easily be neglected what with all the insurances, the internet subscriptions and all the stuff we have to try to remember in our ordinary lives.

I don’t ever expect to have a political conversion that would put into question any one of the principles the PN requires me to adhere to. I can see myself die of natural causes blessed by old age and surrounded by mourning great-grandchildren still proselytising my unshaken conviction in rule of law and subsidiarity.

But being a party member is more complicated than adhering to its principles. Principles are, as the name implies, where it all starts. Not where it ends.

Now I am under no illusion that all members think in a certain uniform way and non-members in a different uniform way. Assuming all PN members voted for the party in the last election (that’s the first generalisation in a long series in this post, but still quite comfortable in the realm of probability), for each one of them there were another 6 non-party members voting PN as well.

So we have our sample seven voters. Six are open to political persuasion and willing to vote PN, maybe once, maybe every time. But they are making no promises. They keep an open mind. Even if they may have a family habit of voting PN that habit is not strong enough for them to step into membership.

If they do drift away from the PN they are not perceived as ‘traitors’ because they made no promises they did not keep. If anything they are seen as ‘lost sheep’. I am profoundly allergic to the patronising and mildly offensive notion that voters who are not formally committed to a party are sheep, lost or otherwise. But I appreciate the origins of the phrase in the parable of the Christ shepherd so I’ll accept the residual catholic context and move on.

My next generalisation is that people who do not sign up to membership of a party but regularly vote for it may prefer not to be seen to support it because of some disadvantages, real or perceived, that may cause them in life. Or perhaps they do not want to be bothered with the correspondence and administration of membership in anything. Or perhaps they don’t want to think too much about politics except perhaps when it’s time to vote.

They keep politics at a safe distance, doing their duty as voters but leaving the worrying, the demonstrating and the letter writing to the one of six among them.

Now the signed up member is different. Their commitment is longer term, certainly beyond the present moment. In a way their membership commits them to support and to agree with the positions the party takes and when they don’t and feel they want to say so they are consciously stepping outside the warmth of the community to turn around and face it down.

The further up the ranks of membership they go, the deeper in the circle they are, and the deeper their commitment to stick to the troop is. It comes to a point where the commitment is so deep that a public altercation carries overtones of treachery and betrayal. Edwin Vassallo’s plunge just a few months ago caused those sort of ripples.

The deeper the cohesion within the party, the harder it is to step out of it without causing irreparable self-harm and harm to the rest of the party.

Although the organisation is not a sentient being in and of itself, the party takes a life of its own. People speak of ‘the party’ no longer as a set of values or a group of people but as a boss with its own views, its own expectations, its will and its own command of loyalty and respect. The party said this. The party wants that.

Detaching oneself from the party’s will, no matter the reason, is never a flippant matter for a member. Another generalisation to be sure but perhaps this is more a psychological assessment than a political or sociological one. Because the political disagreement is complicated by feelings of guilt, betrayal, anger and disappointment. A political discussion is in theory interested in law, economics, science and logic. But if humans were capable of being so dispassionate about things, life would be dull and mechanised, and politics would be redundant.

Emotional complexities set in. Loyalty and belonging are exploited to compensate momentary disagreements on matters of policy. You may disagree with the party about this or that thing but there’s a greater emotional attachment, a bond that is not lightly broken without the emotional deterrent of isolation even from one’s own identity.

This emotional bond ensures the survival of a group as such through the inevitable disappointments, mistakes, losses and disagreements that it undergoes through the normal course of its existence.

The principles may have been fundamental notions like human dignity and democracy. But the methods to keep the group together are not unlike football fandom where disappointment in losses, even if tragic, embarrassing and repeated; where anger at bad decision-making or poor playing; where the differences and the in-fighting that bubble up whenever a team is on a losing streak, are patched over by a broader sense of belonging and resorting to the comfort blankets of nostalgia, symbolism and objectively absurd jingoism in chants of ‘you’ll never walk alone’.

A football fan looks forward to a winning year but will sooner eat grass then switch teams because their team is losing. Hearing of someone who switched sides because of that will bring to mind notions of treachery as if this was a war and your mate has deserted.

That is what could possess someone to sign up for a life membership in a football fan club or a political party. A political party’s political doctrine (particularly if it is a party of a moderate broad church conviction as the PN’s) is not too demanding when someone is faced with a prospect of a life time commitment. And the lifetime commitment to a flag, its totems, its history and the passion it engenders are in and of themselves a comforting attraction for anyone who does not actually mind committing and belonging.

But there is an added complication in our political scenario. Which is also the distinction that shows that the comparison with football fandom is only useful to a certain extent.

Our continental and rather conventional party-political methods are shuffled with a rather American style of personifying politics into the person of the party leader.

Because our parliamentary elections are in reality a cover for races to elect a chief executive (see my post of yesterday for a discussion on this) of all the totems that demand loyalty and give comfort to a party member – on top of all the flags and the anthems and the badges – is the person of the party leader.

The leader becomes one with the party to the extent that the two concepts or entities become indistinguishable. The odd discomfort of speaking of a faceless body as if it was sentient is calmed by the personification of that body in the identity of the party leader.

This fact crosses a number of surprising lines for ordinary people, even the sixth of the party’s voting corps. In everyday life we get to know a person before we feel so committed to them that we would feel guilty betraying them even by disagreeing with them. Anyone would have to earn our loyalty in real life.

But the election of a party leader is like an arranged marriage. On top of all the reasons, logical and emotional, to love your party, to belong to it, to feel guilty to disagree with it, let alone leave it, now sits someone you barely know or do not know at all. Now you’re expected to don your armour and fight for a king who may share with you the principles of the party, but, at least in the early stages of a leader’s incumbency, not much else.

And the oddness of that relationship is especially pronounced for life members who on signing up at some point in their lives enter a form of loyal engagement with party leaders who may be yet not born.

It is in this emotional context too that some of the phenomena we’re witnessing in and around the PN’s headquarters right now can be understood.

We have supporters irrationally defending their candidates as if they’ve known them all their lives somehow glossing over any doubts they should be having by a passionate loyalty they would display only for their children.

We have supporters threatening departure from the party because their inability to relate to the leader is equated in their minds with an inability to relate to the party as if both were one and the same thing.

We have party members openly questioning existential matters that never occurred to them before, such as, to keep it to the case in point, whether the concept of life membership makes sense in the context of a political party when it is barely expected in a marriage.

To be fair, if we must face it, the notion of life membership of a political party is in the democratic context a philosophical abomination. A bit like original sin. Coldly, logically, rationally speaking, one’s convictions should be examined every day and without losing sight of a bigger picture, one must decide every day (or to be practical, say yearly when a membership card is up for renewal) that their commitment to a political party is justified by its politics and its people. If one does that much thinking for their car insurance, it should not be that hard for the committed sixth to do so about their political party.

A lot has been said, especially by me, about the unhappy side effects of this strange and unprecedented, even moderately tragic electoral process. But there’s one very good, albeit unintended, side effect. People (a generalisation if ever there was one but certainly true of several) are re-examining their commitment to this political party.

Because of the conviction in those principles and the desire to promote them, I sincerely hope that the outcome of this election process and the outcome of this introspective re-examination, bring about the continuation, nay, the re-energising of the PN.

I have to do something about that lifetime membership though.


  • MSpiteri

    I find myself at loggerheads. More often than not the desire to turn in my membership is becoming stronger. It is not a position against one candidate or against another. I could I would choose none. I am trying to find the ‘courage’ to abandon ship at a stage, when I no longer recognise this morphed version of a party that has lost all bearings. That is stretched and labelled by diametrically opposed factions. They are tearing it apart and there is no way to save it other than hope that whoever emerges as triumphant over this mess will make some sense of it. The problem is that I am a Nationalist, I will never change – that is my constant, but this is too much. A party is not a spiritual faith. I cannot believe without experiencing, without conviction. This party has been drained of vision, of values, of power to persuade and the two who are purporting to bring an end to us, do not show any potential of bringing about a sense of unity. So I think i’ll throw in the towel now, before the match between them is concluded. This is not PN anymore. That PN is a concept that will live in the annals of history, that will live in my heart. But Camelot is Camelot no more.