Joseph, please stay: Out comes the old guard to galvanise the Labour vote

A petition that seeks to ‘convince’ Joseph Muscat not to step down as Labour leader before the next general election could well be used to galvanise the Labour vote ahead of the 2019 MEP elections

Instead of slowly letting go, Joseph Muscat is underlining his role as the party’s best asset
Instead of slowly letting go, Joseph Muscat is underlining his role as the party’s best asset

Three Labour stalwarts – former General Workers’ Union secretary-general Tony Zarb, influential Gozitan party delegate Guza Cassar, and Sant-era party propagandist Manuel Cuschieri – are coordinating a national petition asking Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to stay on as Labour leader.

Undoubtedly, the question is why the petition is being set in motion right in the middle of an electoral campaign. Internally Muscat’s decision to vacate the party’s leadership before the next general election due in three years’ time is considered irreversible although the departure could be more gradual if Muscat fails in securing an EU appointment. Notably, the petition is aimed at persuading the PM to stay on for as long as possible and does not suggest that he should stay on beyond the next general election.

So the campaign aimed at convincing Muscat to stay on may well be seen as an attempt to galvanise grassroots support for the PL leader in the forthcoming mid-term elections, sending a message against complacency in view of the widespread expectation of a landslide for Labour.

For beyond collecting signatures, the campaign spearheaded by the Labour veterans would clearly send a message that a strong vote for Muscat would be the most effective way of convincing him to stay on as leader for as long as possible. In the absence of an external threat from the Opposition, which normally serves as a unifying force, the campaign will seek to rally die-hards in an appeal for Muscat to stay on.

The sheer possibility that their vote may change the mind of a beloved leader may give Labour voters greater motivation to actually go out and vote. In short, the petition may well serve to ensure a high turnout among a segment of Labour voters who may not be so keen to vote in MEP elections either because of over-confidence or due to latent euro-scepticism.

Still, a strong result by Labour can work both ways. While it may send a message that voters have once again renewed their trust in Muscat, it also sends the message that the party is now strong enough to endure a leadership race in the comfort of enjoying a strong majority. Possibly, Muscat’s intention may well be that of decimating his adversaries to give his party enough breathing space during the leadership change-over.

And while raising hopes that the Labour leader may change his mind, the petition may be off-putting for moderate Labour voters who actually see Muscat’s determination to step aside before the next general election positively, as an insurance against Muscat digging his heels in Castille. In fact Muscat’s promise to leave has so far balanced the cultish devotion displayed towards him by some of his supporters. Any organised attempt to make him reconsider his decision may be reminiscent of Alfred Sant’s change of heart after stating his intention to step down after losing the 2003 general election, only to announce his intention to contest again for leader a few weeks later during a mass meeting.

While such a campaign may well be a genuine attempt by party stalwarts, it risks putting a spotlight on the uncertain future of the Labour Party at a moment when Muscat is himself trying to project mid-term elections as a contest between himself and PN leader Adrian Delia. In fact the media narrative has so far been dominated by speculation on whether Delia would survive as PN leader after expected losses in MEP elections.

Yet Muscat himself can’t escape the contradiction between his repeated attempt to give a presidential twist to mid-term elections (and putting his signature behind every candidate standing for these elections) and his resolve not to contest another general election as PL leader.

Instead of slowly letting go, Muscat is underlining his role as the party’s best asset.  

Muscat himself has been keen to emphasise future solutions to everyday problems impacting the quality of life of voters, in areas like the environment, infrastructure and public transport. This itself raises the question on whether Muscat is simply postponing problems created by his economic model, fully knowing that he won’t be the one responsible for solving them. Judging by his performance in his debate with Delia last week, the Labour leader – despite remaining a good communicator –looked more jaded than usual.  

Muscat himself has recently promised that he will not be leaving the party’s leadership abruptly. But the absence of a roadmap on his departure creates a degree of uncertainty on the party’s future. This is further underlined by growing uncertainty on who could replace him as party leader.

The suggestion that Konrad Mizzi may be tempted to contest sent shivers down the spine of those within the party who are concerned by the damage inflicted on the party by the Panama Papers, and who hope that the next leader will clean the party’s Augean stables. For one major question facing any future Labour leader is whether he or she would keep Mizzi in the Cabinet.

Chris Fearne’s lacklustre speech on the 1 May mass meeting further underlined the risk of electing a leader who lacks the charisma of the present one. In his speech Fearne confidently spoke of Labour remaining in power for 25 years, trying to convey optimism in Labour’s staying power for a post-Muscat future. He also gave the party a sense of purpose by setting its aim as that of creating a new class of ‘rich’ working class. Yet he clearly needs to work up his rhetorical skills to inspire a crowd.

It is also unclear whether other possible contestants like Ian Borg have the depth of political vision to lead a party. And it remains to be seen whether galvanised by success in MEP elections, Miriam Dalli will stand for party leader, becoming Malta’s first female political leader, a step which would be in tune with Muscat’s present emphasis on gender equality. But even Dalli needs to step up her act if she is seriously considering the post of party leader. 

Any any aspirant to the Labour post will be compared to Muscat in the same way as all post-2004 PN leaders were compared to Eddie Fenech Adami. The comparison will be even more brutal if the advent of a new PL leader coincides with an economic slowdown. The impact may be mitigated if Muscat opts for a transitional phase in which he would continue serving as PM while the PL elects a new leader.

But this could well impinge on the new leader’s ability to steer his own course. Indeed the roadmap depends on Muscat’s future ambitions. Without a European post coinciding with the advent of a new EU commission, Muscat may be more amenable to a transitional phase where he serves as PM. And then the other question remains: will big business prefer continuity with Muscat’s pro-business policies or will they shun a leader bent on restoring his party’s social democratic credentials?

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