Labour United: Is the team spirit gone?

Over the past decade, the Labour Party has showcased its internal cohesion, contrasting it with the constant state of confusion on the PN side. James Debono asks whether the table has turned and whether coach Robert Abela has the umph to straighten out things before next year’s mid-term elections.

The Labour Party has showcased its internal cohesion, contrasting it with the constant state of confusion on the PN side
The Labour Party has showcased its internal cohesion, contrasting it with the constant state of confusion on the PN side

Prime Minister Robert Abela coached his team to a convincing victory in the 2022 ‘championships and remains undisputed manager of the club. 

But some of his strategic choices of late have left supporters and club officials jittery as they question the coach’s ability to continue the club’s 14-year-long winning streak. 

In short, the coach is not in dispute, but his tactics are, and much will hinge on how the team will perform in the European and local tests in 2024. 

This football analogy is drawn from feedback obtained from party insiders, who chose to remain anonymous to be able to speak freely. 

The unease may subside if coach Abela makes a strong and scripted comeback after the summer lull with targeted government action to address disgruntled pockets and provide reprieve to a struggling middle class. 

Abela may yet set the tone for the mid-term elections season next year to seal his reputation as a winner. 

But Abela, who performs best when in control of events, may yet be served a curve ball by situations whose timing is beyond his control. One such event is the possible arraignment of his predecessor Joseph Muscat once the magistrate conducting an inquiry into the hospitals deal concludes her work. 

Abela is facing team trouble and it is only natural that this is hyped up by an Opposition that has recently rediscovered a sense of unity after years of bitter infighting. 

After all, the perception of the PN as a fractured party played a significant role in its inability to make headway despite Labour's scandals. 

For the past weeks the PN media has been fueling speculation on factional fighting within Labour and Bernard Grech recently described Robert Abela as an ineffective leader who has “given up on governing”. 

One expects the Opposition to raise the stakes by exaggerating divisions on the other side but giving more credence to the the notion that trouble is brewing within the Labour Party are statements from veteran party members like Evarist Bartolo. 

The former education minister cryptically wrote on Facebook about “a half-hearted captain” whose crew is “losing trust in him” even if there is “no enthusiasm from anyone to take his role.”  

Speculation was also unintentionally fed by former party deputy leader Joe Brincat who advised Abela to seek a vote of confidence by party members to put an end to whispers of internal turmoil and invigorate the grassroots as Mintoff had done in 1957. 

However, Brincat overlooked the mere fact that the last leader to resort to an internal vote of confidence was Lawrance Gonzi in June 2012 as he faced rebellion in parliament that threatened his fragile one-seat majority. 


Exaggerated rumours? 

But how true are the rumours of internal discord within Labour's upper echelons? Certainly, Abela does not face any threat to his safe nine-seat majority in parliament and the prospect of any imminent leadership challenge is beyond remote. 

Party insiders point out that any indication of a specific minister vying for succession would likely suppress those ambitions. No one would be willing to declare interest in becoming the leader at this stage, as such aspirations could be interpreted as disloyalty to the current leader. 

Recalling that it took Labour a full decade to recover from the epochal clash between Dom Mintoff and Alfred Sant, party insiders acknowledge the traumatic experience as a lesson that bolsters unity in Labour. Similarly, history teaches us that the PN's downfall after 2013 stemmed from the turmoil which characterised Gonzi's unstable one-seat majority after 2008. 

The problem for Labour at this juncture is the erosion of the ‘team spirit’ that characterised the party over the past decade. This erosion has been accelerated by concerns over Abela's abrupt U-turns on amendments to the abortion law and the Sofia inquiry, leaving supporters and activists baffled and disoriented. 

Some MPs even expressed their misgivings on Robert Abela’s handling of both issues in anonymous comments reported in both MaltaToday and the Times of Malta. 

This climate contrasts with the way Labour rallied behind Joseph Muscat even in his defence of controversial figures like Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri despite obvious signs that something was amiss. 

Although this sense of unity played a key role in the party's landslide victory in 2017, it also hindered the early resolution of problems, which are now causing a serious headache for Abela. In this sense internal criticism may be a blessing in disguise.   


Managing conflicts under the big tent 

Yet the party still lacks a public forum where activists can discuss the overall direction on issues such as planning, migration, and how far the party should go on the civil liberties front, particularly on topics like abortion and euthanasia. 

For while in a big-tent party, it is normal to have different outlooks, by avoiding debate on these issues Labour under Abela may be repeating the PN's error under Gonzi, when the party’s identity crisis was ignored only to continue haunting the party for the next decade. 

The Labour Party’s electoral successes might have inadvertently contributed to this problem. Under Muscat's leadership, the party's stratospheric victories granted him a blank cheque in steering the team toward economic policies and social liberalisation he wanted. 

Nonetheless, Abela's equally impressive victory in 2022 might have obscured growing disillusionment among different segments of Labour voters which has been brewing for some time. 

Abela’s big win last year despite losing 8,200 votes from the party’s 2017 tally was possible because the PN lost even more votes to abstention. 

Polls indicating that nearly a fifth of Labour voters in 2022 now intend not to vote suggest that, while the Opposition isn't gaining ground, Labour might be entering a phase of decline. 

This is robbing the party of one of its most effective strategies - banking on a bandwagon effect which hinges on voters’ identification with the winning party. 

This decline comes amidst a backlash against some of the policies which contributed to vertiginous economic growth, including a laissez faire approach in construction and growing reliance on cheaper foreign labour. 

In the medium-term Labour’s future in government depends on its ability to keep the economy rolling while addressing these concerns. However, the coming months might pose an even more direct challenge to Abela’s authority. 


How things could get much worse for Abela 

A looming uncertainty for Abela's political future is the pending magisterial inquiry on the hospitals swindle, which should establish whether there are grounds for prosecuting former Labour cabinet members, including Muscat. The potential arraignment of the former prime minister could trigger a defence outcry from Muscat loyalists, expecting Abela to stand up for his predecessor.  If the arraignment precedes mid-term elections, they may even threaten Abela with their abstention if he fails to comply. 

This presents the Prime Minister with a Hobbesian choice between appeasing Muscat supporters and reaching out to middle of the road voters angered over Muscat's involvement in the hospital deal. 

In the 2024 European Parliament and local council elections, Labour needs both types of voters to maintain its super majority. However, the prospect of Abela retaining his super majority also depends on a low turnout among PN voters as was the case in the 2022 general election. 

This is where the game gets more complicated because the PN will be fielding Roberta Metsola, the current EU Parliament president. Her high-profile candidacy will probably boost the turnout among pale blue voters and could potentially attract middle of the road voters to the PN. 

Furthermore, a strong showing by Metsola could trigger a change in the PN’s leadership, altering the political landscape significantly. 

Metsola parachuting into the domestic league could potentially trigger questions within the Labour Party as to whether Abela’s coaching skills are suited to counter a reinvigorated Opposition. 

Surely this remains a hypothetical scenario, and events may well unfold differently. For example, any PN gains during the mid-terms could potentially solidify Grech's position, making a leadership change in the PN more unlikely. 

However, in the bleakest scenario involving a Muscat arraignment followed by a Labour electoral drubbing, which could also pave the way for Metsola's 2027 prime ministerial campaign, Abela's leadership would suffer a significant blow. 

This string of events would make the coach more susceptible to internal scrutiny and the voices will not be constrained to the dressing room.