The Labour Party or the Labour Movement? An evolution

I have lately experienced situations of political activists in which they were wondering what, if at all, is the difference between the Labour Party and the Labour Movement. Now, this is a very interesting and pertinent question that really set me to reflect. When, how and why did the Labour Party evolve and transform itself into the Movement with which we are so familiar today? In order to better answer this question, I think it is imperative to have a look back at the Party’s history, both from a national and international perspective.

In essence, the Party originally consisted of a group of persons organised to acquire and exercise power. It had originated in its modern form in the 19th century, along with the electoral and parliamentary systems, whose development reflected its evolution. Initially, the political process unfolded within restricted circles in which cliques and factions, grouped around particular noblemen or influential personalities, were opposed to one another.

The establishment of parliamentary regimes and the appearance of the Labour Party at first scarcely changed this situation. This was mainly due to the fact that the other parties in existence then were of the ‘cadre’ type, that is to say, dominated by politically elite groups of activists, such as has long been the case with the Nationalist Party up to this day and age, whereas the Labour Party was then still struggling to ground itself as a party with grassroots levels. Suffrage was largely restricted to taxpayers and property owners, and, even when the right to vote was given to larger numbers of people, political influence was essentially limited to a very small segment of the population. The mass of people were limited to the role of spectators rather than that of active participants.

When, how and why did the Labour Party evolve and transform itself into a Movement?

The essential factor was that the Labour Party attempted to base itself on an appeal to the masses. It attempted to organize not only those who were influential or well known or those who represented special interest groups but rather any citizen who was willing to join the party. However, for a number of reasons, the party succeeded in gathering only a few adherents, so, at the time, it remained mass-based only in potential. It remained, nevertheless, different from the cadre-type parties of the time.

The political parties of the colonial period were, to a considerable extent, transplants from the mother country, with issues allied to those which represented the divisions of public sentiment on the other side of the world. It is with this background that the coming into existence of the Labour Party seemed unavoidable in the conditions of the Maltese at the time. It promoted watchfulness on the part of the people and rendered it next to impossible for those in power to betray their trust or to cherish abuses that imperil the nation.

The Labour Party was re-founded in 1949 as a successor to the Labour Party founded in 1921 and formed a government for the first time in 1955. With Mintoff at the helm, the party governed from 1971 to 1984, during which time the post-Independence military and financial agreements with the United Kingdom were re-negotiated. The government also undertook nationalisation programmes, import substitution schemes, and the expansion of the public sector and the welfare state.

Employment laws were revised with gender equality being introduced in salary pay. In the case of civil law, civil (non-religious) marriage was introduced and homosexuality and adultery were decriminalised. Through a package of constitutional reforms agreed to with the opposition party, Malta became a republic in 1974. This was the time when the Labour Party was being transformed into a mass-based party.

Fast forward to 1992 with Alfred Sant winning the election for party leader, then modernizing the party, and securing a victory at the polls in 1996. Under Sant’s leadership, the party made several changes. The party opened the new Labour Party Headquarters in Hamrun instead of the old Macina in Cottonera. The party also made giant steps in the media by being the first Maltese political party to own its radio and television stations. We can argue that it was he who sowed the first seeds of the Labour Movement. Seeds that subsequently, within a few years, sprouted to mature into a full-fledged Movement with Joseph Muscat at the helm. Not only, with Robert Abela taking over and filling the void left by Muscat, the Movement was now, and still is to this day, being fine-tuned almost to perfection.

What is in a name, one may perhaps ask, as to whether the nomenclature should be a Party or a Movement? Well, the Movement is not just a name, but, in essence, a living and effective party structure. Through the Movement, many Maltese ordinary citizens were able to rise up in demand of democratic rights and to give voice to societal aspirations and injustices. It became a legitimate popular movement that aspires to make governing institutions more representative and responsive to average citizens. 

When looking at movements merely as national phenomena it can be tempting to disregard them as a passing expression of public dissatisfaction of some kind. But that would be a mistake with respect to the Labour Movement. When one compares the developments achieved through it and takes into account that it has seen a steady increase in numbers and successful campaigns recently, its significance changes. What distinguishes it from a traditional political party, what contextual factors affect its emergence and what factors influence its survival?  

The survival of the successful Labour Movement has been defined by combining horizontal and vertical structures, having decentralised, participatory and bottom-up approaches with centralized, formal political leadership structures. Balancing activism with long-term institutionalisation and ensuring cross-pollination between the two. Moreover, its survival also required channelling activism into coherent political demands and policies. Support from existing rooted organisations and political insiders, those who know how democratic processes and institutions function and how they can be influenced, was another key factor for the Movement’s survival. As are charismatic leadership and broad societal support and a favourable public opinion.

The Labour Movement is destined to remain with us for quite a long time!

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