Delia’s red scare: Why does the PN call Muscat’s Labour ‘socialist’?

Who exactly do PN strategists think they are fooling when they attack Labour for being socialist?

Reds under the bed? Those on the left are not convinced pro-business Muscat is the socialist enemy the PN is trying to make him out to be
Reds under the bed? Those on the left are not convinced pro-business Muscat is the socialist enemy the PN is trying to make him out to be

Over the past few days the PN has systematically embarked on denigrating Labour using the ‘socialist government’ moniker in its daily statements.

At the same time the party regularly reprimands Labour for being too close to big business interests, which in itself indicates that Labour is anything but socialist.  

But who exactly do PN strategists think they are fooling when they attack Labour for being socialist?

The problem for the PN is that its claim that Labour is socialist is simply not grounded in reality. In reality Labour is today very similar to the PN in the 1990s – a big tent centrist party.

While Muscat is sometimes more neoliberal than the PN when it comes to spurring economic growth by moving the goalposts for big business, he is a bit keener on wealth redistribution than the PN. Overall no big change.

In fact, in left-wing quarters Muscat often faces criticism for not being socialist enough. It’s a criticism which makes Muscat himself uneasy to the extent that last Sunday, he dedicated a part of his speech to defend his socialist credentials – insisting that economic growth is vital for delivering his “socialist method”.  

So why is the PN attacking Muscat for being socialist instead of trying to exploit discontentment by those who feel that Muscat has gone too far in his pro-business policies?

Sure enough the PN has been very critical of land deals accommodating big business. Yet it flip-flops when Labour veers a bit to the left when proposing reforms to the rental market with the aim of protecting tenants.

Perhaps what the PN has in mind when lambasting the government’s socialism is the association between ‘socialism’ and ‘big government’. In fact the socialist label is often included in criticism of the government’s institutional shortcomings, like those identified in the Greco report.

But in so doing the PN ignores that these shortcomings date back to independence and outlasted several PN led administration.  

Such criticism may strike a chord with a segment of M.O.R. voters who recoil at Muscat’s strongman appeal and Labour for further blurring the lines between state and party.  

But still, has this anything to do with socialism? Scandinavian countries which have a long tradition of social democracy are also associated with very high standards of governance.

What the PN has in mind is not European socialism but Malta’s brand of Mintoffianism, which occurred in a post-colonial context when Labour over-reacted at a time where it was pitted against powerful forces like the Catholic Church and the traditional ruling classes.  

The target audience of the PN’s anti-socialist campaign is a declining cohort of old-timers for whom socialism evokes images of thuggery and violence which characterised Malta in the 1980s. The downside of this is that Labour has moved with the times while the PN seems to keep hanging on to fading images of history.

What does this have to say about the PN’s appeal among millennials? Does socialism carry so many negative connotations among younger generations?

Truly rampant consumerism, individualism and ‘amoral familism’ militate against any socialist awakening and this is even reflected among Labour’s own young crop of activists, busy celebrating the best of times and the likes of Konrad Mizzi, despite being outed as owners of offshore companies. In this context, Labour’s only claim to radicalism comes in the shape of its substantial pioneering reforms in the civil liberties camp.

On the other hand it is also possible that in a bid to dig new roots, some young PN activists may be clinging to a neo-conservative worldview influenced by the resurgence of the populist right, in full contrast with their own party’s Christian democratic roots.  
Yet on a mass level, one suspects that Malta’s young political class is still living in a post-ideological age, where left and right carry little meaning especially amongst those busy exploiting the opportunities offered by the economic boom.

But this period may well be nearing its end, especially among those at the receiving end of the property boom: the ones paying higher rents and losing open spaces around them. Young people – especially the civic-minded – also live in a world where left-wing ideals are making a comeback among millennials in the shape of what have become global icons like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Greta Thunberg… socialism may well carry more positive connotation than ever before.

Amidst concern on growing inequalities and environmental degradation in Malta itself, the spectre of socialism may well be slowly making a comeback with groups like Moviment Graffitti becoming reference points for a left-wing opposition to Muscat’s government. Labour – which could soon elect a new leader – may well realise that it is time to swing the pendulum slightly back to the left. In this sense the PN risks being overtaken by history once again.