It was never about ‘ethical standards’, though, was it?

It seems that an undercurrent of Labour supporters can’t understand how a party that has defended Konrad Mizzi tooth and nail for four whole years, would suddenly turn around and just throw him under the bus like that

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

It is obviously too early to tell, but there seem to be flickers of a backlash against the Labour Party’s unceremonious dumping of Konrad Mizzi last Tuesday.

This week, The Times quoted a ‘party veteran’ who said “they had sensed a wave of criticism from party supporters following Mizzi’s dismissal”... including “Labour voters who were even threatening not to vote because the party had ‘danced to the tune’ of protestors who they perceive as being ‘anti-Labour’.”

For what’s it worth, my own social media newsfeed has thrown up similar comments here and there. It seems that an undercurrent of Labour supporters can’t understand how a party that has defended Konrad Mizzi tooth and nail for four whole years, would suddenly turn around and just throw him under the bus like that.

Interestingly enough, the root cause of this ‘wave of criticism’ – i.e., ‘dancing to the anti-Labour tune’ – is almost a direct echo of the reasons given by Konrad Mizzi himself, when defying his party leader’s marching orders on Facebook.

Mizzi’s exact words were: “I did not agree [with Robert Abela] that I should resign over allegations and speculations pushed forward by the PL’s adversaries.” And evidently, a percentage of the Labour Party’s support-base (however large or small) share that overall sentiment. 

Well… who can really blame them?  These are, after all, the same Labour supporters who had cheered so ecstatically last January, when newly-elected PL leader Robert Abela – having won that election on the promise of ‘continuity’ from the Muscat era – celebrated his victory by publicly embracing Konrad Mizzi on the podium, to rapturous applause.

How can they not feel confused – possibly even betrayed – when the same Robert Abela suddenly emerges from a PL parliamentary group meeting, to announce that Mizzi had just been (almost unanimously) ousted from the party… because, please note: “we have set the highest standards of governance, and of good ethical behaviour on a political level…”?

Meanwhile, it says something about the sheer magnitude of this turnaround, that even the news bulletin on the Labour-owned One TV that evening – though otherwise selectively edited, as always – chose to retain, and even highlight that particular remark: as though to underscore the fact that Robert Abela was ‘doing the right thing’ by sacking Mizzi… even if it meant doing the opposite of was the ‘right thing’ until just the day before.

Unfortunately for Mizzi’s fan-base within the Labour Party grassroots, there is only way to interpret that message: i.e., as an admission that the so-called ‘anti-Labour’ brigade had indeed been correct all this time; that Konrad Mizzi’s behaviour really was (at minimum) ‘unethical’… but also, that it is only now – i.e., in the wake of last week’s Montenegro revelations, which exposed a money-trail that takes us beyond the realm of ‘allegations and speculations’ – that his position within the Labour Party has finally become politically indefensible (and, therefore, instantly expendable). 

And they’re being told this, not just by Robert Abela himself, and 99.9% of his parliamentary group… but also by the Labour Party’s television station: which has actually been saying the clean opposite for years. 

In 2017, for instance, Mizzi was hosted for a staged interview on One TV… and presented to the audience as the ‘victim’ of a Nationalist-led frame-up (or a ‘Terinata’, if you prefer the archaic term). The Labour media has also consistently downplayed the link between Konrad Mizzi and 17 Black: even more so when Yorgen Fenech was revealed as the owner of that company in 2018. And the same line was maintained even in late December 2019, when Fenech was eventually arrested for murder, and the entire Muscat administration imploded.

Throughout that time, there was a common thread to the Labour media’s defence strategy: all the so-called ‘allegations and speculations’ against Konrad Mizzi were always deflected as part of a complex conspiracy by ‘people determined to get back into power at all costs’ (or words to that effect, anyway). 

It was, in a nutshell, projected as a possible ‘threat’ to Labour’s otherwise unassailable stranglehold on power… thus triggering the automatic reflex-response of ‘rallying the party troops around their beleaguered champion’.

And the strategy worked, too… for let’s face it: Mizzi not only survived all that for four whole years; but he also gained enormous grassroots popularity in the process. 

There is, however, a reason why it worked so well; just as there is now a possible price to pay for that success. 

The Labour Party’s media strategy was all along rooted in the language of political warfare: it fed into the them-versus-us motif that sits so comfortably with all our other manifestations of cultural tribalism – rivalries between football clubs and fireworks factories, for instance – and which has, in any case, always underscored all Malta’s political controversies in the past. 

The same motif can be traced all the way back to such classic Mintoff slogans as ‘He who is not for us, is against us’… and even Eddie Fenech Adami’s celebrated ‘Is-Sewwa Jirbah Zgur’: which conjures up images of a ‘battle between Good and Evil’ (later echoed by Simon Busuttil in 2017, etc. etc.) 

While it may not have had the desired effect in all those cases, this strategy tends to work because it appeals to a much deeper, more primal urge among Malta’s typical diehard political fanbase (regardless of political allegiance…still less, any concern with ‘ethics’, or ‘doing the right thing’).

And that is the desire to be part of a winning team… coupled with the sheer pleasure of celebrating the defeat of ‘the other side’. (Or, as Conan the Barbarian once put it: ‘to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women…’)

Hence the political price to be paid. For in the end, the same strategy worked so very well, that it is now fuelling the very ‘wave of criticism’ that threatens to gnaw at Robert Abela’s own popularity. 

Evidently, there are swathes of Labour supporters who genuinely believed that Konrad Mizzi really was the victim of a plot by the enemies of Labour; and from their perspective, his dismissal from the party will be viewed as both a capitulation, and a political injustice in its own right.

I suspect, however, that there is a larger cohort which never really believed that about Konrad Mizzi at all… but went along with the strategy all the same, for all the reasons outlined above: i.e., because it sated their appetite for political victory.

And this in turn spells out even more trouble for Abela: because if he is really being genuine with his claims of having ‘set new ethical standards’ for the Labour Party… well, that can only mean distancing himself ever further from the Joseph Muscat era – and with it, the much-cherished ‘L-Aqwa Zmien’ myth, on which so much of Labour’s recent political successes have depended.   

But as a direct result of the success of his own party’s own media strategy, that’s not what Robert Abela’s supporters actually want; nor is it what they were promised at the last leadership election… still less what they have been brought up to expect from their party leaders, over decades of careful media grooming.

To make good on Tuesday’s ‘ethical standards’ boast, then, Robert Abela will have to dismantle part of the political apparatus that has stood the Labour Party in such good stead in recent years… running the risk of destabilising his own party in the process.

Having said that, though: at this stage, it is impossible to predict the full extent of any possible fallout. I, for one, am not naïve enough to believe that the level of discontent will reach the same (or similar) crisis proportions as it did within the Nationalist Party, since Adrian Delia’s election in 2017… though something tells me that the real challenge has yet to be faced; and it will come if (some would say ‘when’) Abela is forced to make a similar decision with regard to Joseph Muscat.

The overwhelming likelihood, however, is that all such grievances will be promptly forgotten, the moment Robert Abela fires the starter-pistol for the next election: and the same Labour supporters suddenly catch the whiff of an umpteenth electoral victory in the air… whereupon we’ll all be back in our respective political trenches, and the urge to ‘crush our enemies’ will once again take the upper hand (as it always does, in the end).

If so, however…  well, it would only further underscore what last Tuesday’s volte-face had already made abundantly visible: that this was never about ‘ethical standards’ to begin with. It was always just about winning, whatever the cost.