Labour’s only Opposition comes from… Labour

Civil society is powerless to bring about change without access to the legislative machinery; and popular discontent, on its own, cannot even come close to bringing down a government…

The last time I interviewed former prime minister Alfred Sant (13 May), I closed the interview with the following question:

“I can’t help noting that [your support for Joseph Muscat] contrasts with your own experience, as a younger prime minister whose government was brought down by an older former party leader. Does that experience in any way inform your support for Muscat staying on? Is it a case of not wanting to do to him, what Mintoff had done to you?”

On the off-chance that some readers were not yet reading papers around ‘97/98: that’s a reference to when MLP veteran Dom Mintoff – by then, just a backbencher in Sant’s government – voted against the Cottonera project in Parliament, to which Sant had tied a motion of no-confidence.

The upshot was that Sant went on to call (and lose) an early election; indirectly paving the way to EU accession, which both Sant and Mintoff had opposed.

Now: whether this counts as ’Mintoff bringing his own government down’ or not, is up to you to decide. To me – and I had just started writing in newspapers at the time – it signified an epochal, generational clash between ‘Old Labour’, and the more business-friendly model of Socialism that would replace it.

Civil society is powerless to bring about change without access to the legislative machinery; and popular discontent, on its own, cannot even come close to bringing down a government…

Parallels could be drawn between Bill Clinton’s transformation of the US Democratic Party in the early 1990s, and the ‘Tony Blair revolution’ in the UK: which incidentally was happening at roughly the same time.

At the risk of oversimplification, the fulcrum of this clash centred on the precise definition of ‘Socialism’, as it applied to evolving socio-economical models.

But back to the question. Considering the depth and scope of all Sant’s earlier answers in that interview, I must admit I was a bit disappointed with this one: ‘No. I simply think Joseph Muscat is doing a good job. He’s still young. He still has other things that he can achieve. And that’s why I think he should stay on. It has nothing to do with any of that…’

Looking back, however, I realise that I should really have saved this question for today. For while Sant’s support for Muscat doesn’t seem to have wavered much, his enthusiasm for the present government’s Socialist credentials has clearly been eroded by a number of… well, let’s just call them ‘shortcomings’, for now.

This, for instance, is something Alfred Sant tweeted this week: “The perception is growing that regulations get enforced most when ‘normal’ people are involved. When the rich, the well-connected and the powerful are concerned, enforcement goes slack. The government needs to show that this perception is incorrect.”

A few weeks earlier, Sant had emerged as foremost among a number of internal Labour critics (also including Jason Micallef and Cyrus Engerer) of a Planning Authority decision concerning a parcel of ODZ land in Qala, Gozo.

In another tweet, Sant demanded “a public, detailed explanation for the risky decision to approve [the permit]’… adding that: “The PA should properly list the reasons that led to the decision, given that there was dubious evidence for the development of the site. If this explanation is not convincing, it is no wonder that doubts (including my own) will grow over how judiciously the PA carries out its duties. Unfortunately this reflects badly on the Labour government at a time when, as shown in the recent budget, it is achieving great progress...”

That last sentence, to my mind, speaks volumes about the growing ‘doubts’ Sant alludes to earlier. In theory, the Planning Authority should be autonomous of government. But in practice, we all know that it has proven amply impossible to ever pry those two entities apart.

So when Alfred Sant says that: ‘Unfortunately this reflects badly on the Labour government…’, his wording suggests that the reflection is somehow ‘unfair’; as if the Labour government is being tarnished by the actions of an independent authority over which it has no real control.

But the quote has to also be seen in its proper context; as a prelude to later criticism which echoes the same sentiment to a ‘T’.

Viewed from this angle, there is no doubt in my mind – none whatsoever – that Sant intended those words as an ominous warning to the government whose ‘shortcomings’ he has so far put up with in (relative) silence.

Translated into truth-speak, what he is clearly saying there is: ‘Listen, kids. This is the line I’m taking in public for now, so as to give you all a chance to get your act together. But if this sort of thing persists… there’ll be trouble.”

Exactly how much ‘trouble’ there will be, and whether it will analogous to the tumultuous events of distant 1998, is a question I will leave to self-appointed clairvoyants to answer. The point is that, then and now, the current Labour leader’s biggest problem is not the Opposition party… but rather opposition from within his own party; and even then, opposition that is undeniably ideological in nature.

As with the earlier Mintoff clash, the concern seems to be with the Labour Party’s Socialist credentials. Sant’s complaints revolve around the precise issue of equality and social justice: whereby the ‘rich, well-connected and powerful’ find it conspicuously easier to circumvent national regulations, in order to get things that are routinely denied to other, less fortunate individuals.

There are, of course, ironies within ironies in this equation. On the surface, Sant seems to be rebelling against Muscat – albeit in minor key – in the same way as Mintoff had earlier rebelled against himself. (Remember all the reasons Mintoff had given for voting against that project, Live on Net TV? They were all likewise about ‘robbing the poor, and giving to the rich’.)

The details have naturally changed, but the surface concern remains the same. Sant is clearly arguing that the Labour Party’s very raison d’etre is threatened, when it is ‘perceived’ (generous concession, that) to be facilitating matters for the wealthy, at the expense of the ordinary man in the street.

There is, however, a significant difference between 1998 and 2019. In 1998, the Nationalist Party was still struggling to come to terms with its historic (unexpected) defeat two years earlier. But when the opportunity arose, Eddie Fenech Adami once again proved his prowess as Opposition leader, and spearheaded a pivotal campaign that would both return the PN to power, and re-open the aborted mission to join the EU.

None of that seems visible today. Sant’s veiled threats were uttered at a time when the PN would struggle to win a raffle, even if it were the only party to have actually bought a ticket.

Under Adrian Delia, the Nationalist Party is irreconcilably divided into two opposing camps. So even if Sant’s misgivings do boil over into all-out rebellion… it wouldn’t necessarily translate into a change in government, as it inevitably did in 1998. (In fact, the most likely outcome would be Joseph Muscat emerging even stronger; on account of having flushed out the party ‘rebels’, so to speak).

Being a seasoned politician, Sant no doubt knows this perfectly well… just as he also fully understands the implications. We are living at a time when the only feasible ‘opposition’ to the ruling Labour Party can only come from within… and therefore, can only be limited and restrained.

Part of the reason has less to do with the spontaneous combustion of the PN, than with the failure of other grassroots movements to ever evolve into something more substantial than the occasional street protest here and there.

Stripped to their bare essentials, Sant’s concerns with (the lack of) meritrocracy and enforcement are also echoed in the emergence of numerous civil society movements and NGOs. Though worded more diplomatically, the message of his tweets is indistinguishable from that of Moviment Graffiti, Flimkien Ghal-Ambjent Ahjar, Din L-Art Helwa, or even – dare I say it – overtly anti-government groupings such as Repubblika or Occupy Justice.

But civil society inhabits the paradigm of public opinion… and, in the absence of any cohesive political Opposition, public opinion can only ever be a toothless animal.

Civil society is powerless to bring about change without access to the legislative machinery (i.e., Parliament); and popular discontent, on its own, cannot even come close to bringing down a government… still less, replace a ruling government with anything remotely functional or desirable.

You need political parties for that; and right now, there just doesn’t seem to be any real alternative to Joseph Muscat’s Labour government, anywhere you look.

Ultimately, then, the only real hope we have of a cleaner, more meritocratic way of doing politics, lies in disgruntlement within Labour itself. I don’t know about you: but I wouldn’t call that the healthiest state a democracy can possibly be in, myself.

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