Beginning of a new Labour era?

Labour’s victory at the polls last week is down to a number of factors, including its ability to mobilise its core voters.

Joseph Muscat. Photo: Ray Attard
Joseph Muscat. Photo: Ray Attard

The European Parliament elections have once again seen Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party secure a formidable majority unlike any other seen by this country.

Since becoming Labour leader, Muscat has won one general election, two European elections and one local council election, hovering around the 54-55% mark. 

Although these remarkable victories can unquestionably be attributed to a weak Nationalist Party in the perpetual two-party system, the surprising result confirms that Labour is in the process of building a hegemonic formation in the mould of Eddie Fenech Adami’s PN in the 90s and early noughties.

In recent years, Labour has achieved majorities which not even Fenech Adami could muster, but what is even more remarkable about Labour’s transformation under Muscat is the fact that it has understood and harnessed emerging social and political identities in a very short span of time.

Recognising the crisis on the left, Muscat has gone on to build a coalition with the primary intent of winning elections by marrying contradictory discourses and policies, although it has also heralded social changes, such as civil unions, which were unthought-of up to 15 years ago.

Muscat articulated this best in the party’s general conference in February, in a thundering speech in which he outlined Labour’s vision for the future.

Muscat set the tone by promising to transform Malta into a “global model” and a land of innovation, opportunity and equality. In doing so, he crystallised nationalistic, liberal, social-democratic and neo-liberal discourses into one linear message.

It is too early to judge whether Muscat’s hegemony will stand the test of time, however Muscat’s growing popularity, the Nationalist Party’s ill health and the two big parties’ hold on the system, indicate that we’re at the beginning of new Labour era.

For the time being, while the PN is out of synch with the electorate, Muscat and his close aides have confirmed that they have an unrivalled ability to read the contemporary national psyche and portray Labour as the natural party of government.

However, Muscat’s cycle will not last forever. Despite representing the people’s aspirations for well over a decade, Fenech Adami’s hegemony disintegrated into a rainbow coalition under Lawrence Gonzi.

Yet, this also depends on the effectiveness of Opposition parties and civil society, which can keep government in check.

Demographic inroads

Labour’s victory at the polls last week is down to a number of factors, including its ability to mobilise its core voters.

However, to put Labour’s victory into perspective, if its 13-point majority repeats itself in a general election it would translate into a 40,000-vote majority.

Moreover, Labour’s victory is even more astonishing when compared to the 2013 general election. Labour maintained its absolute majority despite having a segment of its core vote not showing up at the polling stations.

This could possibly indicate that Labour has wowed new voters, dismissing mid-term blues and the barrage of criticism from the Opposition benches during its short time in office.

A quick glance at the electoral map of the country shows that Labour has all but sealed and secured an enduring majority in the southern and central regions, driving the PN up north.

The PN is on a par with Labour in the twelfth district and only holds an absolute majority in districts ten and eleven, while regaining a relative majority in the eighth and holding on in the ninth district.

Perhaps, the most remarkable result was registered in Gozo, where Labour maintained its 49% share from last year’s general election, while the PN’s vote dropped by five points to 45%.

Although Labour has not won a majority of votes in general elections in Gozo since 1955, the thirteenth electoral district continues to play a strategic role in Labour’s plans to build a long-lasting majority in what was a Nationalist fortress.

John Baldacchino: 'not about a hegemony'

We asked academic John Baldacchino, Chair of Arts Education at the University of Dundee in Scotland, to share his views of whether Labour's victory confirms its hegemonic status in today's Malta

Talk of a “Labour hegemony” adds nothing to a proper evaluation of the European elections. It is now evident that Joseph Muscat’s government managed to accommodate a chain of divergent demands, where beyond their ideological opinion, different individuals and groups are finding their immediate needs to be addressed and satisfied.

This explains the support enjoyed by Muscat and his government, notwithstanding their occasional mistakes and an attitude that is not always to everyone’s liking.

This is not new to Maltese politics. In fact there are strong similarities between this government and Eddie Fenech Adami’s in the late 1980s. The Opposition know this and they argue that Labour has stolen its clothes, not only by the PL’s changed attitude towards the EU, but in how Labour now occupies the centre-ground (and some would even say the centre-right) of Maltese political opinion.

The problem for the PN is how to regain control of the common ground on which Muscat has constructed a way of governance that firmly links together the immediate ambitions and needs of a sizeable majority that keeps returning its strong support. I would argue (rather bluntly) that what worked well for Fenech Adami Sr in the 1980s will not work now if Fenech Adami Jr has his way come the next general elections.

Unless the PN regains the same populist (and popular) ways of satisfying a diverse array of ambitions that gave it (and now the PL) many years in government, it will stay in the wilderness, just as the PL did. Sadly, in such debates we seem to forget that over and above the PL and the PN the Maltese Establishment has survived and effectively continues to rule the roost whoever is in government.