Four reasons Labour is at loss when called out by Graffitti

Graffitti are a tough nut to crack for Labour: it is confused on how to react to direct actions that defend the commons, like the ‘reclaim Comino’ event

Moviment Graffitti activists launched a direct action on the island of Comino to protest the blocking of the coastline by private concessions for sunbeds and deckchairs
Moviment Graffitti activists launched a direct action on the island of Comino to protest the blocking of the coastline by private concessions for sunbeds and deckchairs

Over the past few years Graffitti’s militancy has pushed the Labour government to retreat on major projects like a proposed yacht marina in Marsaskala and the building of a campus at Zonqor. Their latest direct action, which saw activists remove deckchairs from the Blue Lagoon, has once again captured the public imagination to the extent that even Labour exponents like MP Rosianne Cutajar and Jason Micallef have endorsed the protest on the social media.

This time around, what is in question is not just the government’s failure to clamp down on sun-bed operators, but also limiting the number of tourist arrivals on pleasure boats, as recommended by the management plan for the Comino Natura 2000 site.

Faced by the group’s militancy, the official fallback position is increasingly characterized by embarrassment and silence, sometimes followed by major positive U-turns. In this case, the tourism minister has announced that sunbeds will no longer be allowed on the sandy beach, claiming the protest took place on the same day Malta Tourism Authority officials were meant to inspect the site.

So why is the same Labour, which is so good in deflecting criticism from other quarters, so unsure of itself when faced by Graffitti’s militancy?

On the environment Labour’s populism is contradictory, faced by the conflicting aspirations of different segments of its own electorate

The powerful ‘Malta Tagħna Ikoll’ mantra keeps returning to haunt Labour, exposing a contradiction between the conflicting aspirations of those who understood this as a promise to safeguard public spaces from the fat cats, and those who understood this as a promise to widen the circle of beneficiaries beyond the restricted circle which benefited under the PN.

In short, while some expected Labour to prioritise communities over the profits of the few, others expected Labour to accommodate the interests of even more people. It is this ambivalence which enables Graffitti to use a discourse with which even Labour voters can identify.

So far Labour under both Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela has prioritised keeping big business on board, while promoting a trickle-down model aimed at turning many others in “little rich men and women”. Lack of enforcement is one consequence of this mentality.

In short Labour’s populism is effective as it keeps delivering financial gain to a wider circle, without imposing any pain. And electorally, this model has reaped benefits for Labour, particularly in districts like Gozo where, despite Facebook outrage at the island’s uglification, Labour keeps increasing its majority.

One should not forget that Labour also attracts former Nationalists previously enthralled by the pro development ‘vision’ of past PN-led governments.

But among another cohort of voters, the occupation of public spaces by private operators and the uglification of our towns and villages, are increasingly felt as a direct threat to their quality of life; something which undermines their everyday happiness.

And had it not been for the shambolic opposition torn apart by its own contradictions, Labour may well have taken a hit in the last general election in which it actually lost 8,000 votes from 2017.

Labour is increasingly finding it difficult to defend its ‘laissez fair’ attitude on land use with any strong conviction. Its fall-back position is to recycle old PN mantras on the need to strike an elusive balance between the environment and development

Labour lacks the conviction to defend a development model for which nobody has actually voted for, and about which it seems increasingly embarrassed by those calling it out for appeasing the greed of the few.

One possible fall-back for Labour is that of taking a leaf from past PN administrations by projecting itself as a party which strikes the balance between cowboy developers and ‘extremist’ activists.

Energy minister Miriam Dalli did so at the State of the Nation conference, during which she brushed aside criticism by Graffitti’s Andre Callus by warning him that “extremism gets you nowhere.”

Yet this is a hard sell in an already unbalanced situation, long skewed against the environment and communities, and where calls for balance in the past have translated into minor adjustments to the ‘business as usual’ approach.

The other fall-back is giving critics the silent treatment, all in the hope that people slowly adjust to a new normal, as critics become exhausted and opposition simply fades away. But this clearly does not work with a determined group of people like Graffitti.

Graffitti is persistent and strategic in choice of battles. This leaves activists exhausted but their militancy keeps giving results

While some of the changes in the past years like the increase of building heights now look irreversible, Graffitti’s persistence on issues like the petrol station policy, the proposed Marsaskala marina and now Comino, have pushed government to listen to popular demands.

Increasingly the government seems intent on testing the waters, measuring the scale of public opposition in reaction to outrageous proposals or practices before announcing the retreat, depicting it as a sign that it is a government that listens to the people.

But this only happens where opposition is relentless and its actions ‘extreme’. This is leaving civil society exhausted, constantly occupied in fighting battles on different fronts ranging from crowd-funding planning appeals to direct actions.

But the ever-growing list of successful campaigns has emboldened Graffitti, which is constantly refreshed by new recruits attracted by its exciting, progressive and winning brand. As things stand, no movement or NGO apart from Graffitti are able to mobilise around 50 people to take direct action like the one undertaken last Saturday.

Graffitti is not allied to any major political party. Neither is it interested in becoming one. And its activists are not easy targets

What is sure is that Labour is not keen on direct confrontation with Graffitti especially when local communities support its campaigns.

Thanks to the consistent track record of its activists who opposed unsustainable proposals under both PN and PL-led administrations, the organisation is immune to criticism of being motivated by enmity towards Labour. This makes it impossible for Labour’s media to demonise Graffitti activists in the same way it does with groups like Repubblika.

But this has not made Graffitti any less vocal in its criticism of Labour on matters which impact on people directly. And by resisting the temptation to transform itself into a political party in its own right, Graffitti is not perceived as a threat to deeply-rooted political allegiances within local communities.

In short, people can associate with Graffitti on particular issues, without reneging on their political beliefs. While this approach is successful, the country also needs a crop of principled pragmatists who can bring about change from within the institutions. For long-term change depends on offering an alternative path to prosperity and modernisation, which does not come at the cost of the commons.

But that also depends on having principled people with strong convictions in positions of power.