10 years later…

While the PN struggles with creating an alternative vision for governing, Muscat shows no signs of slowing down his own reformist pace; even after five years of prosaic government, Muscat can still communicate larger aspirations and portray himself as a ‘guide’ to achieving more

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

In the Joseph Muscat playbook, individualist aspiration gets rewarded. Perhaps in a continuation of the Fenech Adami narrative, workers are no longer part of a struggle against employers, but of a struggle to accumulate and consume more.

At least, his lacklustre speech on 6 June seemed to suggest that – “work begets work, wealth begets wealth” was his epigrammatic summing-up on Labour’s record on the economy. As he enters his tenth year at the helm of Labour, one is reminded of how Muscat took over the mantle of identity politics, framed by the overarching principle of equality.

This had always been one of the biggest hangovers from the 1990s, at a time in Malta when the personal became political, but where notions of the “common good” as dictated by patriarchal leaderships often trumped the fragmented demands of interest groups.

Muscat identified the signs of the times, expertly navigated the currents by first personalising his support for divorce in 2011 and later kick-starting a secularist drive of equality laws that took Malta to the top of the LGBTIQ league.

The Nationalist Party has been languishing behind ever since with its inability to understand that the pursuit of happiness cannot be dislodged from that of free enterprise, the guardian of which it once proudly proclaimed itself to be.

Muscat weaponised these identities and their emancipation as soon as they became a niche market in the supermarket of democracy. In his bid to mend Labour’s frayed relationship with business leaders and curry favour with influential employers, Muscat set aside Labour’s socialism, to conjure up a ‘movement’ of diverse interests and shore up his neoliberal programme.

It is at this intersection that Muscat has the PN running around in circles. Only this week he was in committee to witness Opposition MPs nit-picking over embryo freezing laws, revealing their incurable will to police bedrooms. The PN is still unable to understand how to win over the people who are themselves also part of these myriad identities, but with an inclusive and universalist programme of radical, life-improving proposals.

Incredibly, they fail at the ground game, refusing to engage in the messy world of everyday life, where the pursuit of happiness is about succeeding and negotiating the contradictions people face.

In the meantime, Muscat is allowed time to focus on technique, illustrated perfectly by the pleasant TV interview this week by a young Lupus sufferer. The tender and the schmaltzy are allowed free rein at a time when the Prime Minister should be answering for serious shortcomings in governance. But this again, is part of the Muscat masterstroke: the storytelling.

This week’s replay on One TV of his inaugural speech in 2008 contained the elements of the future statesman in action. Employing the power of the myth – with his own humble background from a politically diverse family, and his aspiration to succeed via the equity of the Maltese educational system – Muscat became ‘one of many’.

Time and time again, this quality has shielded him from brazen attacks aimed at denigrating him personally, or his family, betraying instead the execrableness of his opponents.

Perhaps what today’s Nationalist Party suffers from is the lack of knowledge of the terrain on which they should be fighting. Except for the de rigueur presence of Opposition MPs at residents’ and civil society protests, there is no evidence of any credible partnership with social forces to truly offer an alternative vision of governing. For the PN is, after all, a party that seeks nothing more than to have a stab at the duopolistic alternation of power.

It too yearns to curry favour with the same elites Labour is in thrall too.

And while the PN struggles with creating an alternative vision for governing, Muscat shows no signs of slowing down his own reformist pace. While many of us shudder at the social and environmental cost of his freewheeling economic programme, the Labour Prime Minister sets the controls for a multi-million capital spend on roads, social housing, and albeit controversial; quotas for elected women MPs. Even after five years of prosaic government, Muscat can still communicate larger aspirations and portray himself as a ‘guide’ to achieving more.

Where does an alternative government-inwaiting fit in this universalist framework of politics?

Firstly, it certainly cannot chastise minorities or demand limits on voters’ well-meaning aspirations. The PN has wasted precious time quibbling over IVF (and before that gay adoption and civil unions) to ensure that once again, it is exposed as a party prone to moral panic. The PN has to understand that people can feel intuitively defined by categories such as gender, religion and sexual orientation.

It is a fatal strategy to use one category against the other to achieve what “the party thinks is right”.

Secondly, under Adrian Delia, a new discourse to shore up the disillusionment of people suffering the worst of Muscat’s neoliberalism is taking place, namely with talk of high rents and stagnant wages. Given its recent history in government of breaking up unions and hiking up energy bills, even this looks like an uphill struggle. The PN is the first to pay tribute to value-added industries like remote gaming and financial services which are partly responsible for wage inflation among skilled workers and the rental hike. Unless it plans on developing an alternative economic vision, and build itself up from workers’ movements, it will be shouting into the wind.

This is why leaders must act as inspirational guides, with a credible and consistent vision of radical change, and not just ambiguous ‘catch-all’ narratives.

To do that the PN must meet the people on the ground at the fault-lines of Muscat’s neoliberal drive, and embrace a radical programme of change.