Joseph Muscat’s ‘missing link’

After the Mintoff era, Labour struggled for years to come to terms with a new identity. Muscat is right to want to modernise his party’s structures… but it would be unwise to make the Labour Party an extension of himself.

Labour leader Joseph Muscat
Labour leader Joseph Muscat

The Labour Party seems to be caught up in an intrinsic contradiction.

Interviewed on ‘Reporter’ this week, deputy leader Louis Grech admitted that issues such as the Café Premier and Gaffarena expropriation cases could have been handled better: significantly conceding that, in its haste to get things done, the government sometimes found it difficult to say ‘No’ to such requests.

Such frankness is welcome, but at the same time appears to contradict the overall direction of recent changes to the party statute. If, by Grech’s admission, the party finds it hard to say ‘No’… it should automatically be wary of surrounding itself with ‘yes-men’.

Yet this seems to be the conscious direction Prime Minister Joseph Muscat wants to take his party in. The clearest indication came with the announcement that Dr Toni Abela, deputy leader for party affairs, will be appointed to the European Court of Auditors to replace outgoing Louis Galea.

This decision has opened up a vacancy for a new deputy leader; and to fill this position, Muscat has announced a further change to the party statute. Previously this particular post was limited to party members who were not elected representatives in Parliament. It was therefore necessary to change the regulations to allow for the candidature of Health and Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi: who will most likely win the position uncontested.

It has already been observed that Abela had distinguished himself in his long career as a thorn in the side of his own party. Along with Wenzu Mintoff he had been expelled altogether after denouncing Labour corruption in the 1980s… only to eventually be re-admitted to the fold. More recently, Abela was often critical of his own government’s decisions, especially in so far as they challenged the traditional view of Labour as a voice for the underprivileged and disadvantaged.

His nomination to the Court of Auditors, to be replaced by someone more ideologically aligned to Muscat’s centrist vision, was therefore interpreted as a ploy to streamline the party in a coherent direction… even at the expense of silencing any dissenting voices.

Muscat himself seemingly confirmed this at the recent extraordinary general conference which approved the statutory changes. “The amendments are not a sign of a party in crisis but a renewal, showing the work of a party that is always seeking to deliver results,” Muscat said.

“Being in government helps me understand the shortcomings we might have as a party. I understand those who support the notion that a deputy leader should focus on party affairs, but we have a missing link,” he said.

The ‘missing link’ reference suggests that his intention is to reduce the distance between ‘party’ and ‘government’. While arguing that the red line separating the two should not be overstepped, Muscat insisted better synergy was needed. “You [delegates] feel that the party has been forgotten and I think that we need a link that joins these two souls.”

This is a highly debatable strategy. Our system is already geared to minimise the distinction as it is. Coalition governments are alien to our mind-set, and it is all too common to talk of ‘Labour’ or ‘Nationalist’ governments, when we really mean a parliamentary majority controlled by that party.

Blurring the distinction further may well suit the political purposes of the Prime Minister better… but is this really what the country as a whole needs? And would the Labour Party itself not also benefit, if – as political parties should – it was more free to debate and propose ideas unshackled by the constraints of government?

Muscat may argue that a more streamlined and focused party, aligned more totally with the aspirations of government, would be in a better position to defend its constituents’ interests. This may even be true, but it overlooks an important function of a political party (as distinct from government). Parties do not exist merely to one day wield the reins of power: they also serve as a hotbed of ideas and innovation. A political party is at its most vibrant and alive when it has its finger on the pulse of the people… and it is all too easy to lose sight of that objective, when one fixes one’s sights only on the trappings of government itself.

The recent amendments may well have consolidated Muscat’s powerbase, and oiled the party electoral machine… but they have also made Labour more of a Muscat-oriented project, and less aligned to the feelings of the typical Labour grassroots supporter.

Ironically, this is a process the Labour Party has been through before. For many years, the identity of the ‘MLP’ had been indistinguishable from the identity of its firebrand former leader Dom Mintoff: a fact which both helped it achieve an impressive record of electoral victories… but which in the long term also damaged its future prospects.

After the Mintoff era, Labour struggled for years to come to terms with a new identity. Its dependence on the persona of its leader changed from asset to liability.

Muscat is in danger of repeating the same mistake. He is right to want to modernise his party’s structures… but it would be unwise to make the Labour Party an extension of himself.

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