Without soul-searching, apologies are useless

This is why an internal process of soul searching in Labour should not be an act of self-flagellation, but rather a way of ensuring that the party can avoid such things happening again in the future

When asked by MaltaToday what steps Labour should take to restore its moral credentials, President Emeritus Marie Louise Coleiro Preca weighed her words carefully.  She did not speak capriciously; her call for an apology was not presented as a token gesture, but was accompanied by a series of far-reaching questions about the Labour Party’s identity.

While the former President (both of the Republic, and of the Labour Party) has not indicated where such a discussion should take place, one would expect the PL to face its own ghosts in an appropriate forum - like the party’s general conference - and for the apology to take the form of a motion endorsed by the leadership.

On his part, PL deputy leader Daniel Jose Micallef has reacted by saying that he has no problem with the party apologizing, as a sign of its humility: but he stopped short of endorsing the Labour grandee’s wider call for a revision of conscience.

His guarded apology, although welcome, underscored the magnitude of the crisis facing Labour. Rather than confronting his party’s own collective responsibility for what happened, Micallef prefers to place the blame on the “behaviour of the few.”

But while this behaviour might not be “a reflection of the genuine activism of many within the Labour Party”, one cannot ignore that we are talking about persons who occupied the highest offices in both country and party.  One cannot therefore avoid asking: how on earth did they end up there in the first place?

This is why an internal process of soul searching in Labour should not be an act of self-flagellation, but rather a way of ensuring that the party can avoid such things happening again in the future. And to successfully ward off that possibility, the Labour Party is now expected to go that extra mile: not just by distancing itself from its rotten apples, but also by pruning the very tree which produced these apples in the first place.

This is presumably why Coleiro Preca also raised questions addressing the party’s identity.  She recognized that there is a very clear link between episodes of corruption, and the Labour Party’s exaggerated flirtations with the greediest aspects of the business sector.

Despite the fact that Joseph Muscat’s economic model was partly successful in securing economic growth, there can be no doubt that its over-familiarity with big business also created fertile ground for corruption on an industrial scale. And even if the Labour Party, under Muscat, positively opened itself up to a broader movement: it did so at the expense of weakening its ability to hold its own government to account.

In this, the unbridled adulation of the Labour leader also played a part. It is not surprising that some of the toxic elements imported from the PN turned out to be the most vociferous defenders of the Panama Gang, and remain the most apologetic towards Muscat to this day.  This is because their sense of belonging to the movement was based only on loyalty towards the leader, and not to Labour’s founding principles.

Another problem is that politics is often seen as a career-path, by party functionaries who lack ideological motivation.  It is therefore no surprise that many of these functionaries kept silent: preferring to just keep on doing their job, while the county was sinking in corruption.

Admittedly, this ‘cult of the leader’ attitude predates the Muscat era; and is by no means limited to the Labour Party, either (as amply demonstrated by the complacency of the PN in the Gonzi years).

But this is just another reminder that democracy needs stronger political parties, to act as guardians against abuse, and in defence of principles: even, at times, from the excesses of their own leaders.  This may well even be the single most sorely-needed fundamental change in Maltese society today.

Unfortunately, however, Coleiro-Preca’s call for an apology may have overshadowed the bigger picture. The reaction of those from the other side of the political Rubicon - who shot down her suggestion, on the basis of her history in the Labour party (and for having formed part of the Muscat government herself) is just another reflection of the same partisan frame of mind: which is motivated only by a desire to vanquish the enemy, rather than to push for wide-ranging reforms which would inject new life into all political parties in Malta.

Likewise, those who suggest that Labour is intrinsically prone to corruption – or should disband altogether - are also doing a disservice, by alienating a significant portion of the population.

On the contrary: now is the time to recognize that Labour is also part of the solution; and that - by coming in terms with its own history (as it did under Alfred Sant, when the party faced the ghosts of the 1980s) - it can only emerge stronger.