Labour at 100: the need for self-reflection

Labour’s centenary may be the perfect opportunity for the party to adopt ‘self-criticism’ as its new political motto; to distance itself from crude ‘leadership cult’ mentality that characterised the Mintoff and Muscat eras

As the Labour Party celebrates its centenary with justified enthusiasm, it must also come to terms with a series of scandals that have weakened its credentials as a modern, progressive and democratic party.

To his credit, Prime Minister Robert Abela appears to acknowledge these challenges. Addressing the crowds at last Sunday’s extraordinary general conference, he admitted the party made mistakes… but insisted that the lessons had been learnt.

He pledged that good governance will remain a priority for his government “to ensure that what happened, does not happen again”.

To make good on those words, however, Abela will have to address the systemic problems that dogged the preceding government.

Some of those issues involve reforms of a system that allowed for the state capture of national institutions and severely diluted our country’s system of checks and balances. As such, these problems have to be tackled at national – as opposed to party – level.

But there are analogous problems that need to be addressed within his own party, too. And Labour’s 100th anniversary presents the perfect opportunity to examine the historical processes that gave rise to some of these shortcomings.

Throughout its centennial existence, the Labour Party’s history has been characterised by a number of epochal, confrontational struggles – admittedly not all of its own making – against the British, the Church, the Nationalist Party, the European Union… and at times, even against itself.

Inevitably, this gave rise to certain belligerence that often characterised its behaviour on the political stage. It also fostered what Abela himself describes as a ‘siege mentality’ among Labour voters… a sense that the party is permanently beset from all angles by forces seeking to destroy it.

Though many of the original causes have long since faded, their effects can still be felt to this day. Judging by public online commentary, one example would be a fierce intolerance for external (local or international) criticism.

This is consonant with the siege mentality alluded to earlier. It creates an aura of ‘victim-playing’, whereby any criticism – even if legitimate – is viewed as biased or unfair.

As such, Labour often imparts the impression that it is automatically right in all its policies and decisions, while its detractors are always wrong. Clearly, this is not a healthy political position to adopt, as it may pave the way to a dictatorial mindset.

Another example is the grassroots’ traditionally unswerving loyalty towards the party leader: which was recently thrown into sharp focus with the resignation of Joseph Muscat – possibly the most beloved Labour Party leader of all time.

Yet for all the adulation previously bestowed upon Muscat, it took Abela no time at all to consolidate his position as the uncontested leader in his place. This contrasts sharply with the problems that have dogged Adrian Delia since replacing Simon Busuttil as PN leader in 2017.

On the surface, this natural tendency to support the party leader, no matter what, can be described as a blessing for the Labour Party; it more or less guarantees a degree of permanent stability that is currently denied to the PN.

But on another level, it can also be seen as a long-term threat to the party’s democratic credentials. It was, after all, a sense of unswerving loyalty to Muscat that created the aura of impunity that ultimately led to his own political demise.

For Muscat, too, was unhampered in his leadership by any discernible system of checks and balances within his own party. Buoyed by such massive, almost idolatrous support, he was under no visible internal pressure to ever rein in the excesses of the people around him.

This, in turn, explains why Muscat found it so easy to mould national institutions according to his own designs. He faced no real opposition in Parliament… and none from within his own party, either.

Even today, that situation has remained unchanged. As our poll recently suggested, Abela appears to already enjoy possibly even greater support level than Muscat… a fact which may, in time, erode his enthusiasm for reforms.

Labour’s centenary, then, may be the perfect opportunity for the party to adopt ‘self-criticism’ as its new political motto; to distance itself from crude ‘leadership cult’ mentality that characterised the Mintoff and Muscat eras, and instead to embark on a process of sober self-reflection.