Reflecting on Labour

There is the perception, whether real or not, that Labour is now “all about the money” and nothing much else.

There have been so many interpretations of the European and local council election results. The general picture seems to be that the Labour Party (PL) has lost half of the advantage it had on the Nationalists, with the Nationalist Party (PN) making some gains but not enough for them to turn the wheel.

Labour now finds itself at a crossroads. While no one can predict the future, there are a number of scenarios where it might find itself in the coming years. Labour might become a stagnant party in power, wining elections with a decreased majority, with fewer people being willing to invest their time, effort, and talent in the party’s – and the Government’s – work, both at a grassroot and an executive level. It might also end up losing power altogether, going back in Opposition, afflicted with infighting and recriminations about things which happened while the party was in power. Labour might also, however, find the strength to reform itself, regain the confidence of a sizeable majority of the people, and stay at the country’s helm.

I am hoping for the last scenario, even if, admittedly, this is the hardest to achieve. There are a number of things which the Labour Party’s leadership needs to do if it wants this to happen.

The candidature

Labour needs to foster talent. The individuals a party proposes as candidates in an election ultimately will have an influence on the way people vote. The Labour Party’s candidature for the MEP elections was good and varied. The candidates were persons who have excelled in their own spheres of life and represented a wide social and professional range. However, the candidature was not representative enough. Only two of the nine candidates were women and there was the feeling that there might have been an element of tokenism. Seven of the candidates hailed from the South, one from the Centre, and one from Gozo. There were no Labour candidates from the Northern part of the country.

The choice of the Gozitan candidate also seems to have been a last minute act of tokenism, even if Thomas Bajada turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, perhaps one of the few silver linings in an otherwise sombering week. If it wants to remain the Party of Government, Labour cannot become once more a “Party of the South”, retreating to its comfort zone, feeling good about dominating the towns and villages of the South while giving up on the rest of the country.

Obamite politics are dead

Labour’s strategy seems to still be centred around Obama-politics, that is the concept that a majority is made up of a wide range of minorities that, together, can form a majority. While this works in certain contexts, years of pandemic and warfare has resulted in a shift in the collective psyche. Hence, we see, for example, a resurgence in nationalism. Faced with these great stressors, people tend to identify more with a greater mass and see themselves less as individuals identifying with particular interests. Hence, while Labour would do well to keep a strong and healthy relationship with minority groups – such as the LGBT community and hunters – it needs to reposition itself as a mass party or else risk being perceived as a fringe party only interested in minority groups. Italy’s Democratic Party, the inheritor of Italy’s once great Communist Party, which controlled whole swathes of that country for decades, now finds itself in that position.

The media

The English-speaking media seems to have moved en masse to the Nationalist side, with some, namely Lovin’ Malta and Malta Today, practically campaigning for the Nationalists. If anyone has the time for it, it would be interesting to study these two outlets’ shift in editorial policy following the financial grants they received from the European Parliament. The Church’s media is, as has been the case for years, hell bent against Labour. There is no surprise in the Times of Malta’s alignment with the PN. Some other minor outlets also played their part in the Nationalist campaign, for example by harassing Labour supporters whenever they could. This happened, for instance, when they asked people who gathered in front of the law courts in support of former Labour leader Joseph Muscat whether they had lit a candle, hoping and praying for a reaction from the hapless interviewees.

Labour can cry foul about the enormous disadvantage it has in the media. It might also question how certain media outlets started campaigning for the Nationalists after they received grants from the European Parliament. However, that will not be enough to address the deficit. More, many more, Labour-friendly columnists need to contribute to media outlets such as the Times of Malta. Labour needs to work harder to build bridges with the media.

While this online portal owned by the Labour Party itself, The Journal, offers it a chance to help even the media playing field, it is evident that the party isn’t leveraging it as it should. The platform evidently suffers from neglect in terms of resources and marketing.

The party even managed to squander the advantage of having a very popular Maltese-language TV, radio, and online news and current affairs service, with the updates and programming offered declining in quality, becoming more partisan and immature, and at times being absent, in so doing undoubtedly driving followers away to competitors.

Labour also needs a Lovin’ Malta equivalent, a media outlet which is rather trashy but which has news content – one might argue the online, social media tabloids of our time. The sun seems to be setting (thankfully) on the (hopefully) short-lived age of podcasts, but it is unlikely that podcast will be a thing of the past in next three years. Labour must invest in this realm and do it now.

Let’s not forget that 15,000 non-nationals registered to vote  in the MEP elections. One needs to study how these voters voted, and how influenced they were in their choice by the English-language media. Such a study should also be done as regards new voters and also the general population.

Those infamous “customer care” units

If I had to point to one single thing that cost Labour thousands of votes, I would say it is the multitude of “customer care” units – from ministerial to party HQ – that in the last couple of years have done more harm than good to Labour.

People’s stories of their interactions with these units read like horror stories: people being told they can abstain from voting if they want to (that is the ultimate “stick your voting document where the sun don’t shine” but said in “customer care” terms), people who are told that their case is impossible and who end up seeking help from the Nationalists who are in Opposition and who actually help the same people to circumvent the bureaucratic red tape under a Labour government (incredible but true – Labourites seeking the help of Nationalists to deal with Government departments under a Labour government),  people being met with absolute arrogance (this seems to be the particular speciality of certain ministerial “customer care” units that feel more like “customer mocking” units), people being asked to leave their particulars, never to be contacted again (happens in both ministerial and HQ “customer care” units), and “customer care” units that seem to run on the very Christian philosophy of helping thy adversary’s offspring and rarely your own, or “charity starts and ends with those who want to see us in Opposition”.

Clientelism is a disease which has afflicted our community since the Order’s time, and maybe before. I doubt whether any politician who refrains from engaging in clientelism can succeed in Malta. However, applying clientelist practices as a means of attracting new voters while putting on the back burner those who form your own party’s backbone is perhaps a more cynical approach to this ancient practice.

Gozo

Something went very wrong for Labour in Gozo: it lost its majority there. It almost lost localities like Qala, where in 2019 it enjoyed a 70% majority. In Labour-majority Xagħra, the vote share went from 66%-34% to 54%-45%. In Xewkija, Labour’s beating heart in Gozo, Labour’s vote share went down from 62.9% to 58.9%. In Ta’ Sannat, known for being Labour’s other traditional stronghold on the island, Labour’s vote share went down from 77.1% to 72.4%. In Munxar, which for some time had a Labour majority, Labour only managed to obtain 23.5% of the vote share. Meanwhile, Labour also lost its majority in Fontana, where the vote share went down from 52% to 38.9%.

Gozo was an essential part of Labour’s recipe for success and this sudden loss of support needs to be carefully analysed. The recent vote of Maltese persons moving to Gozo has to be factored in – have these new voters supported Labour or the Nationalists? Which of the two major parties is better engaging with them? What is it that is making Gozitans less willing to back Labour? And, on the flip side, what made it possible for Labour to increase its vote share in Ta’ Kerċem from 34.1% to 48.5%? Is Labour’s ability to flip Għasri testament to the agency that talented individuals have within our party-dominated landscape?

There is a local answer to many of these questions, but there are also island-wide and national factors which need to be dealt with.

Alienation

After a decade of being the only political party with any prospects of governing the country for over a decade, Labour has managed to alienate huge swathes of the electorate. There are traditional Labour voters, a rainbow of old and young, manual workers and white collar professionals, employees and people have their own economic activity, who no longer feel that they belong in Labour.

Perhaps Labour grew too much. Perhaps it gave too much centrality to people who, up to a decade and a half ago, were militant Nationalists, and who have been placed by the Labour government in decision-making or consultative positions. That could have led to a situation where Labour now feels alien to many Labourites, as these “converts” have reshaped the present Labour Party in their image. One conspicuous example of this is Labour’s First of May activities. For decades, this day was marked by Labour as a day of celebration, a feast for all workers. This was incompatible with the neo-Labourites’ way of doing things, and hence what was once a feast has been transformed into yet another unexceptional and run of the mill mass meeting.

This shift of course materialises itself more importantly when it comes to policy-making. In its pursuit of attracting Nationalist voters, Labour has enacted policies that do not align with many of its traditional voters’ values. It is time for Labour to reconsider its policy priorities and align them more to the current mood with the country and the party, and to its core values.

Another group of people that Labour has managed to alienate is that of the non-affiliated voters. There are many resons for this, but the obvious ones are there for everyone to see. The current building boom is a major reason. It might be true that it was the Nationalists that permitted the current building craze with their review of the local plans in 2006, but it is also true that, for most voters, Labour is to blame for what is widely-viewed as the abuse of our localities with increased buildings all around us. It is also true that some of those taking it out against Labour have themselves benefitted from the same building boom, either by selling their property or by investing in the building and real estate industries. But alas, that is human nature.

Issues of bad governance, graft, and corruption have also tarnished Labour’s image, not just with this section of society but with most of it. Naturally, these issues are not only allienating non-affiliated voters but also thousands of traditional Labour voters. There is the perception, whether real or not, that Labour is now all about the money and nothing much else. Labour runs the danger of being perceived as being an unsavoury choice in many circles, with people finding it difficult to identify with the party. This has happened in the past; it is in Labour’s interest that it does not happen again. Labour needs to effectively address bad governance, graft, and corruption wherever they exist.

The voting patterns in both European and local council elections might indicate this alienation as it seems that Labour lost more votes when a third party / independent option was present. This was particulary a Labour problem and not so much a Nationalist one, as the PN did not “lose” as many votes to independents as Labour did. While a more thorough analysis is needed, this might be yet another indication that a good number of voters who, if forced to choose between Labour and Nationalists will choose Labour, vote for another party as soon as the possibility arises.

Abortion?

It seems that one of the strategies that Labour is about to embark on to re-consolidate its following is to broaden civil liberties in Malta, in particular abortion rights.

Although I am in favour of decriminalising abortion, I believe that Labour needs to take a very prudent approach at this particular juncture. There are various approaches that Government can take. For example, it might go for total legalisation with abortions being undertaken by the national health service. At the other end of the spectrum, Government might consider making the punishment for abortion less severe. It might also decide to let civil society take a more central role in the debate. While Labour has always been tasked with bringing about social change, I am not sure that the Labour Party is in a position to carry that particular burden under the present circumstances.

From a pragmatic point of view, if Labour were to push for the legalisation of abortion, apart from causing huge chasms within the party, there is the high probability that it will only be percieved as trying too hard to gain political advantage by those who are in favour of the legalisation of abortion. There is also the possibility that the legalisation of abortion might contribute to the defeat of Labour in the next general election, only for this reform – and maybe other reforms too – to be eventually reversed. It might be better in the long-run to soften our current laws, than to outright repeal them.

Labour’s future

A lot of work needs to be done to reform Labour, which will benefit both the party itself and the country. These elections were nothing but a test run for the upcoming general election. As such, we can deduct that the Labour Party will be treated extremely unfairly by the English-speaking media and by the Church media. The whole country now knows that the “customer care” units are mostly a means of vexing Labour voters while succoring Nationalist ones – this seems to have been a decade-long formula which has now blown up in Labour’s face.

This electoral campaign has brought to the fore a number of faults in Labour’s campaign strategy – Labour’s strategy team certainly needs to pull up it socks, think more creatively, be more attuned to the now, build bridges or replacements, stay focused on the party, and not rely on the Government’s successes to reflect on the party’s showing. It has to be more reactive, stop spins from the Nationalist side before they start circulating until they become the established truth, and be aware that they are taking it against a newly-reestablished conglemeration of interests that are now trying, as hard as they can, to push Labour, by hook or by crook, out of Office.

Ultimately, all decisions need to be taken not for the benefit of individuals but for the common good of the country and the party. Labour is banking on its exceptional running of the country’s economy in times of crisis. It needs to be reminded that Britain’s greatest wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, suffered a landslide electoral defeat in 1945 even though he boasted a staggering 83% approval rating and was considered a national hero during the war. 

As cruel as it sounds, after emerging from hardship the last thing people want is to be reminded of that same hardship.

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