The Labour movement must take the cue

Labour will not win the next election fighting on its track record, no matter how good its articulation of that record may be. The voters want change, and Labour has to convince them it can provide that change.

Turning Labour’s revival into a greater and more durable majority is possible, but only if it delivers the changes people are crying out for. If it can learn one thing from recent events, it is that the continuity of social democracy can never be taken for granted.

Granted, after the pandemic, and with the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia war, many voters have grown weary of the failure of governments to address their need for security and prosperity as they face the cost of living crisis. Voters everywhere remain sceptical of the ability of politics and politicians, from all across the political spectrum, to act in their interests. They are sceptical too of the capacity of government to change their lives for the better, at a time when we badly need to renew the modern State in the face of the pervasive crises hitting all nations around the world.

Right to left, and back again

The metaphor that the pendulum inevitably swings back from right to left and back again is a true reflection of politics in Malta. It is a fact that political power in recent Maltese history has almost equally been shared between the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party. The current Labour administration has been in power since 2013, after a long reign of PN administrations. Yet, the Labour Movement has needed to learn from, not take comfort in the revival of the centre-left ever since.

Undoubtedly, until 2013, the GonziPN administration ended up being a divisive and unpopular incumbent. Labour learned from its defeat in 1998, when Alfred Sant was at the helm, and opted not to overload the prospectus for government. In 2013, it came back with clear, bold pledges. Joseph Muscat was the voice of a hopeful, safe change for Malta, carrying a positive message in the run-up to the campaign with practical, deliverable promises based on the people’s priorities.

Forgetting for a moment what happened in the following years, when circumstances forced Muscat to resign and make way, a Labour Party transformed into a practically national Movement made pledges to back its grander missions for government. It modelled a steady and unifying leadership in contrast to the divisive politics of its opponents, backed by solid social democratic platforms on wages, pensions, and public services that resonated with people’s need for security and prosperity after a waning PN that had stopped delivering and became a victim of internal dissent.

It’s not about them; it’s about you

An enormous amount of Labour’s time is being devoted to identifying dividing lines with the Nationalist Party. It is wasted time. You cannot define the PN; only they can do that. You can only define yourself. But it’s worse than that – your dividing lines are worse than just a waste of time. Your attempt to establish them is actually damaging you.

When people watch Labour politicians talking about the Nationalists, they are making judgements about the party in Government, not about the Opposition. They are asking themselves, “Does this person seem pleasant? Is he/she interested in the things I am interested in? Does he/she act in proportion? Does he/she care about the country or just abour his/her political interests?”

Your attempt to define the PN along dividing lines and as a right-wing party make you come across as if you are acting out of proportion, only care about partisan politics, and lack a pleasant approach. In other words, you are squandering what has often been a Labour advantage – the people’s belief that you care and that you are likeable.

A coalition for change

There is no route to another electoral victory or a parliamentary majority for Labour without reconstituting the historical coalition between today’s working-class voters and liberal-leaning middle-class voters. Of course, their forms have changed over time, and election results with different voting systems reflect that societal fragmentation. Today’s working class is totally different from the traditional one; women now make up a larger share of this part of the population, without whose support there is simply no way to get a parliamentary majority. For Labour, that means realigning with and regaining new working-class voters. Labour must get its act together and strive to remain ahead among working-class voters.

Whether this tentative revival can be turned into durable majorities will depend on whether Labour can deliver the change that people are crying out for. If voters give it the chance to be confirmed in government again, then the changes Labour instigates must make a difference to people’s lives, not just win plaudits in the abstract. This is kitchen table economics. Despite the highfalutin speak of policy experts, it is much, much harder these days to translate policy change into real-world improvements in people’s pockets. The old playbook, from left or right, of a payout or a tax cut won’t necessarily work in an era when these can be cancelled out by the next electricity bill or by the rising cost of living.

The Labour administration must immediately embrace a mission-driven approach to government to provide the opportunity to tackle the root causes of stagnating wages and volatile costs, multiple security issues, the negative consequences of rampant corruption, and the environmental saga, and offer help now. On the back of a strong job growth, Robert Abela’s government must come up with a slew of reforms to provide further assistance with the cost of living, tackle the structural and infrastructural problems such as public transport and the road network system, elderly care and childcare, and bring the Budget back into surplus. Being streamlined and disciplined during an upcoming election campaign does not have to inhibit serious-minded reform in government.

Looking to the future

Labour will not win the next election fighting on its track record, no matter how good its articulation of that record may be. The voters want change, and Labour has to convince them it can provide that change. This means talking about the future and acknowledging past mistakes, even when it is not sure if it agrees that they were, indeed, errors.

Only a mature, responsible, and visionary leadership can take the Labour Party further and faster than many might think imaginable. After the encouraging result at the last general election, Labour must offer the hope that a better future for our country is possible. But that must be grounded in a practical programme to improve people’s prospects. Only then will it have earned the trust it asks for.

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