The state of Labour today

Joseph Muscat and his party strategists must go right back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister is not in a listening mode.

Muscat knows that by sticking out his neck for Mizzi and Schembri, Labour is now deeply divided and its image badly bruised
Muscat knows that by sticking out his neck for Mizzi and Schembri, Labour is now deeply divided and its image badly bruised

The polls carried by MaltaToday since the 2014 local council elections, have obviously been unnerving for Joseph Muscat. Only time will tell whether this is a continuing downward trend to something much worse. But for a moment let’s ignore what happens next and consider the state of the Labour Party today. What image do you think of when you think of the Labour Party? For most people, it’s Joseph Muscat. The party seems to have been morphed into Muscat’s image.

Part of Joseph Muscat’s public good fortune has been timing. He took hold of the Labour Party when it was flat on its back. When he became party leader, Labour had been out of office for more than a decade; an entire generation had grown up knowing only Nationalist rule. Labour was terminally demoralized by successive defeats. It had lost touch with the people. He knew that to make Labour electable again, he had to transform the party into a broad church. In a party that was not bursting with talent, Muscat – thanks not least to his charisma and marketing persona, shone. From his first days at the helm of the Labour party, Muscat showed ruthlessness. He removed Jason Micallef from Secretary General and abolished the post. On the eve of the general election, he sacked deputy leader Anglu Farrugia.

Muscat did what no leader of the Labour party had done before him. He made, what turned out to be, a successful pitch towards the middle classes and the new white collar middle classes and kept the working classes – the bedrock of Labour party support – within his fold. The new Labour leader sought new friendships with rich, successful businessmen who, traditionally, supported the Nationalist party. Most of them had built their business empires under the golden days of the Eddie Fenech Adami administrations, but grew disenchanted towards the end of the Gonzi administration – despite a booming economy.

Just when they thought that they had nowhere to turn to, Joseph Muscat gave them Keith Schembri – a successful businessman and a friend from their student days, and Konrad Mizzi, an unknown quality who probably had to ask for directions the first time he met Muscat at the Labour party headquarters. Mizzi and Schembri gave Labour the credible face it badly needed to reconnect with Malta’s top business elite; to eventually become a public embarrassment – especially Konrad Mizzi. Following the 2013 election, we were told how well-known businessmen met high-ranking Labour party ‘officials’ in a soulless room on the fourth floor of Labour’s party headquarters at Mile End. This was where Labour had planned its general election strategy.

Muscat renamed his party and changed its emblem. Blue, the colour traditionally associated with the Nationalist party, became the new red.

He referred to his party as a political movement – hinting that Labour as we knew it was reserved solely for traditional Labour party supporters, whilst the rest – made up mostly of disenchanted traditional PN voters – could join the ‘Movement’ without feeling that they were supporting Labour. It may have looked more like a marketing ploy than a political philosophy, but it worked. Muscat had uprooted the party’s traditions and destroyed Labour as we knew it. He had moved Labour on to territory the PN had comfortably, but naively, believed was its own. Within a year his trust ratings surpassed those of his political adversary – Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. The new Labour leader was on his path to victory.

Throughout the electoral campaign, he never explained in detail what his government would do – referring instead to a ‘road map’ when pressed for details. Muscat conducted a perfect marketing operation for a product no one quite understood, except that Labour had changed, completely, its image. People bought that. Salesman Muscat had won his first marketing campaign – doing so reassuringly.

Today, Labour is still, in name at least, a social democratic party and is affiliated with socialist groups in Europe. But there can be no doubt that under Joseph Muscat Labour moved away from its founding principles (and traditional Labour party supporters tell you that it ran away from them) – the sale of Maltese citizenship to the mega-rich being a case in point, as was the transfer of public ODZ land to a Jordanian businessman.

Muscat’s Labour cannot be defined as a centre or a centre-right party; pragmatic is probably the best way to describe it. There are further mixed messages. On the one hand water and electricity prices were reduced, but energy provider EneMalta was partially privatized. Free child care was implemented across the board, but single mothers saw cuts in their social benefits. Muscat talks about the redistribution of wealth, a fundamental principle of social democracy, and although implementing income tax cuts, has refused calls to raise the minimum wage, or decrease fuel prices despite the price of oil being at an all-time low. To his credit, the economy has grown at a remarkable rate. On the economy, the Nationalists always had a lead over Labour. Muscat has, so far, managed to prove that Labour too could generate wealth.

His problem is that the wealth being generated is not being enjoyed by all – especially by those who have, traditionally, supported his party.

It is not just electorally wrong for Labour to be seen as a party whose ambition is to let a handful of people increase their wealth overnight, at the expense of the hard-working taxpayers, it is also morally wrong. Questionable dealings with shady businessmen have a corrosive effect on our society. It crushes the spirit of people – the absolute majority, who believe that hard work pays. Bad governance risks endangering Muscat’s accomplishments in office.

In his article, ‘A template for social democracy, but at whose expense?’ MaltaToday senior journalist James Debono wote that, “The actions of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri sum up all that is wrong with Muscat’s Labour. It is a party which glorifies the talents of the wealthy, irrespectively of how they accumulate wealth. The rush to facilitate business interests in the face of ‘bureaucracy’ is key to understanding previous scandals like Café Premier and the Gaffarena expropriation. It’s what Silvio Berlusconi termed the ‘can-do state’ (“governo del fare”).” Debono couldn’t have said it better.

Joseph Muscat won the 2013 general election thanks to what are commonly referred to as ‘switchers’. Most of them wanted a new way of doing politics. Yet the new Labour government, the party elected to represent such people in Parliament, is now led by a man who refused to sack a member of his cabinet whose position became untenable the moment news of his Panama shell company, and New Zealand trust were revealed. His decision last Thursday to keep Mizzi in his Cabinet, and Schembri as his Chief of Staff, shows a worrying disregard for the views of the very same people who in 2013 gave him a convincing win. A majority of respondents to the latest MaltaToday survey, who have not made up their mind on who to vote for in the next general election, also want Mizzi and Schembri to resign. Last Thursday, the Prime Minister ignored them.

Which begs the question, is Labour capable of being, once again, the fresh movement for change come 2018? The way things are it looks highly unlikely. As the Prime Minister steps on stage to address thousands of party supporters at Castille Place this afternoon, he will boast about his government’s track record in tourism, the success of the construction industry, the catering sector which has continued to flourish under his premiership and a resilient economy. He’s right, of course, but he knows that come 2018 he needs a new narrative to secure another win at the polls.

It is widely believed that his ‘Movement’ has had a short lifespan. That presents Dr Muscat with a serious problem. He is aware that Labour without the support of the ‘Movement’ (read countless sectors of the population made up, mostly, of switchers) will find it increasingly difficult when he goes to the people hoping to secure a second term. And the Labour party is facing potentially an existential crisis. When it cruised to victory in 2013, no one thought that merely three years later it would be leading the PN with a slender three percentage point advantage. But it has.

Despite defeating the Opposition’s vote of no confidence in his government last week, Muscat knows that by sticking out his neck for Mizzi and Schembri, Labour is now deeply divided and its image badly bruised. Labour party supporters privately complain that they no longer have an understanding of what the party stands for. What’s more, despite enjoying a narrow lead in the trust ratings over his political counterpart, the Prime Minister’s image is badly bruised, too.

With his image badly hurt, and his position badly weakened after refusing to sack Mizzi and Schembri; a short-lived ‘Movement’, and the Labour party facing potentially an existential crisis, Muscat and his party strategists must go right back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister is not in a listening mode.

Frank Psaila, a lawyer by profession, anchors Iswed fuq l-Abjad on Net TV

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