The ‘little rich men’ promise: How Muscat wins the populist game

How Muscat wins the populist game in the week defined by muted racism on Malta’s big labour influx

Adrian Delia and Joseph Muscat: let the foreigners come to us
Adrian Delia and Joseph Muscat: let the foreigners come to us

Facing Joseph Muscat in their first televised debate on TVM’s Xtra, Opposition leader Adrian Delia held his ground, but was outsmarted in the populist game with Muscat promising to turn us all into little rich men served by foreigners at the lower rungs.

Faced with Delia’s more abstract brand of populism on migration, Muscat promises to turn each one of us into “little rich men” (sinjuri żgħar): he turns the tables on the Opposition’s concern on the increase of foreigners at the lower end of the labour market, by saying that given a choice he would rather have the Maltese move into high-level jobs than “picking rubbish in the streets”.

Muscat understands these popular aspirations, which in the first place were cultivated by past Nationalist governments. In his promise is the vision of a society where everyone can join the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie, where the working class is allowed unlimited access to self-interest. That is why he picked on the “wealthy worker” (ħaddiema sinjuri) motif coined by deputy leader Chris Fearne in his albeit wooden and dreadful 1 May speech.

Still, Muscat’s narrative perpetuates an ‘us vs them’ divide, in which foreigners serve as an accessory to the overriding goal of turning the Maltese rich, possibly substituting the native working class at the lower rungs so that the Maltese move one step up the ladder. By endorsing a racial division of labour, such discourse contrasts with Muscat’s government’s own pretentions at creating a more inclusive society.

Wooden: Chris Fearne gives a speech on 1 May
Wooden: Chris Fearne gives a speech on 1 May

Surely to some extent Muscat’s vision reflects a reality in most advanced capitalist societies. As aspirations changed, a greater segment of people in these countries started shunning certain jobs, which were occupied by others struggling to move up from even worse conditions in their homeland.

In fact, one major shortcoming in Adrian Delia’s ‘smart migration’ model is that it gives the impression that the only jobs foreigners are needed for are those at the top, when in reality an ageing population also needs more foreign workers in jobs like nursing and caring for the elderly.

The other weakness in Delia’s argument is that foreigners at the higher end are the ones to have contributed to pressures in the property market (as well as in the cost of living), which have squeezed the Maltese middle and working classes.

Still Muscat’s discourse is also reminiscent of a Dubai model where foreigners serve as accessories to the economic growth of their host country, both as well-paid expats at the higher end who live in sanitised enclaves, and as lowly-paid strugglers without roots, stuck at the bottom end. One risk of such a model is that the Maltese working class itself gets squeezed in competition at the lower end of the labour market.

Delia was quick to denounce this model as “classist”. Yet this term may well be reversed on him for his declared preference for EU workers, which are still the majority of foreign workers, and an apparent preference to restrict foreigners at the top end of the labour market.

The advantage for Muscat is that Delia seems more intent on ticking a “concern” box rather than articulating a narrative with which working class people can identify. While he panders to the immigration concern, he does not fit the stereotype of far-right politicians. He surely does not harbour any doubts on Malta honouring international obligations with regards to asylum seekers. One may even argue that it was Muscat, by revealing that Delia was among the lawyers filing a judicial protest against his aborted pushback in 2013, who is reminding the xenophobic constituency that Delia is not one of them.

This simply confirms how toxic the debate on migration can get: Muscat may regret his pushback moment, but he is still willing to use his adversary’s snowflake moment to tarnish his reputation as a migration hawk.

What came out clearly in the debate was the absence of a populist narrative to counter Muscat’s own ‘toxic’ brand, one which addresses concerns on wages, cost of living and property prices – rather than pandering to sheer prejudice.

Sure enough Delia was no pushover in the debate. He actually performed better than expected. One reason may well be that Muscat thrives on the acrimonious confrontation offered by Delia’s predecessor. Instead, he was faced by a calm adversary keen on speaking on daily issues rather than treating his interlocutor as some sort of criminal.

Still, Delia has not found a clear way to counter Muscat’s ability to create a narrative based on self-interest, which makes his cosmopolitan model sound both patriotic and utilitarian for the average voter.

It remains difficult for a PN leader to articulate a discourse based on social justice, simply because even Muscat’s timid social policies have been more generous than those of the previous administrations, which had institutionalised precarious working conditions in government contracts.

This is why Muscat could get away so easily when asked about low wages (despite Malta being the only EU country to see a contraction in wages during the second half of 2018), and why it is so hard to reinvent the PN as a popular party.

The debate simply highlighted the absence of a cohesive counter-narrative to Muscat’s vision of the future, which feeds more on aspiration than on social justice. But to be effective, such a narrative must be equally populist, in understanding people’s aspiration for a better life. For that is exactly why Muscat keeps on winning in the populist game.