Party leadership elections are by definition introspective and bloody affairs. It is hard to imagine our political system surviving the harsh primaries of the American, and latterly the French system, were an open and unseemly battle is fought by hopefuls suffering wounds in the campaign to get their party’s nomination, which they’ll then have to carry in the real battle for the top post.
It is tough enough as it is to see here candidates of the same party badmouth each other within the district as they elbow each other for their constituents’ selection.
It is particularly unattractive because we expect political distinction to be on issues not personalities and people belonging to the same party are not supposed to disagree on issues, not publicly anyway.
Candidates for party leadership get rather difficult and contradictory advice. They must stay away from the issues to make sure the party does not appear outwardly divided. And they must steer clear of personality attacks, even the most subtle, as that would shatter the illusion of comradeship and collegiality.
This reduces the public utterances of leadership candidates to a series of rather dull inanities about ‘winning’ and ‘doing things differently’. I don’t moan only about the vagueness. It is not just that the discourse is shallow and barely kisses the surface, never mind scratches it. Apart from the lack of depth there is a marked lack of breadth as well.
So far the leaders have presented themselves effectively as the next party chairman. Their mission as they describe it is to consolidate the party’s finances, reconcile with alienated supporters, re-examine the opposition’s agenda and – this one is popular – unite the party.
The furthest and boldest ambition we have so far been presented with is “winning again”. Furthest and boldest in relative terms. In my view, too timid in absolute terms.
In our system the choice of party chief is not about selecting an efficient administrator for the party machine. With all due respect, gentlemen. You’ll have secretaries general for that.
Leadership elections are also presidential primaries. We are not choosing an aspiring party leader. We are choosing an aspiring Prime Minister.
And our candidates need to sort out their campaign messaging pronto and start working on sharing their vision for the country, quite beyond their methods for the party. All they need to tell us about running the PN is that they understand its challenges and will mobilise the right team to overcome them.
It takes a little courage by the party leader to stop fearing his own party supporters and present them himself candidates for the positions in his team that he needs to help him realise his vision. He must ask of the party delegates and the party members a committed endorsement that goes beyond his choice as leader but also confirming his choice of senior party officials that will work on his program of reforms.
Securing this double-layered support will allow the leader to free up his attention from the mundane detail of party administration and focus instead on his proper job: making policy. Articulating his vision for Malta and inspiring a country to follow him in its pursuit.
To secure that double-endorsement which they so badly need (though they may not quite realise that yet) leadership candidates must stop being coy. They need to take some risks, stir a little bit of controversy. They need to inspire in all of us the confidence that they know just what they want and they know just how to get it.
In order to win they must fight. They must bruise and bleed and carry their wounds as trophies of conviction and persuasion.
It is right that candidates are inspired by the past. It is wrong if all they present to the rest of us is nostalgia. The party will not build its future by mining its past. It needs a new understanding of the aspirations of the nation and it will not acquire this through surveys, conferences and academic reports. Sure those can help. But the real tool is the leader’s proven ability to feel the pulse of the country and to diagnose its maladies before they sink too deep.
The leadership campaign is not just a stage the winner must overcome before a fresh start the day after the election. This is the beginning, and therefore a very important part, of a relationship between the person who would be Prime Minister and the people who get to decide if he will be. That is not the party councilors or the party members.
That is the business community, academics, the press and journalists, trade unions, civil servants, educators, law enforcement providers: in other words the entire nation.
Starting off on the wrong foot by communicating with a discourse that inspires no one to give up a few minutes of their attention rather dampens the prospects for the continuation of that relationship.
Even in the July heat, gentlemen, a little inspiration is needed.