The pitfalls of moving from Government to Opposition

The fate of France’s Socialist Party, illustrating how power can be followed by near collapse, should be a cautionary tale for the PL.

Imagine the scene. A conservative party in power amid an economic crisis, rendered deeply unpopular by scandals, a detached governing style, and an austere economic programme. The centre-left is led by a pragmatic centrist who speaks the language of change but also of moderation and fiscal discipline. He steers the party towards a landslide electoral victory, restoring it to power after years in Opposition. And yet, just a few years later, that same party is unceremoniously dumped out of office by the electorate and finds itself on the brink of collapse as its voters, members, and even some of its leading lights abandon it.

The first part of that scene was supported by facts. The last part, however, is imaginary but dangerously close to becoming real. Regular surveys continue to show the odds in favour of the Labour Party should a general election be held at the time those surveys were conducted. Yet the fate of France’s Socialist Party, illustrating how power can be followed by near collapse, should be a cautionary tale for Labour. There are definitely one or two things that the Maltese Labour Party must keep in mind.

You win from the centre; you win when you appeal to a broad cross-section of the public; you win when you support business as well as unions. You don’t win from a traditional leftist position. I envisage that, come the next general election, the choice will not only be between government and opposition but also between heart and head, between the pursuit of power and the purity of principle. The choice will be precisely about principle. It will be about whether support for our values will be found in either the Labour Party or the Nationalist Party.

Labour politics in the last few decades has provided today’s Labour with one great advantage and one large millstone to exploit. That one big advantage is that the values of Malta today are essentially those fashioned by social democracy. We live today in a society that, by and large, has left behind deference, believes that merit and not background should determine success, is inclined to equality of opportunity and equal treatment across gender and race, and believes in a national free health care system and the notion at least of the welfare state. What should give the Labour Party enormous hope and pride is that it has helped achieve all this.

However, the large millstone is that perennially, at times congenitally, Labour confuses values with the manner of their application in a changing world. This gives it a weakness when it comes to policy, which perpetually disorients people and makes them mistake defending outdated policy for defending timeless values.

People consequently misunderstand the difference between radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary, and radical social democracy, which is all about ensuring that the values are put to work in the most effective way, not for the world of yesterday but for today and the future.

So when, despite reforms, there are still long waiting lists at Mater Dei, or a failure to transform much of our schooling or to cut crime, this would be a betrayal of principles, not an implementation of them. Betrayal ends up leaving a system of failure in place, even if Labour had created such a manifestation of principles in bygone days.

Labour must stop betting on winning on an old-fashioned leftist platform. It should forever stand for social justice, for power, wealth, and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few, as the people have long been clamouring for. But that is not the challenge. The challenge is how to do it in modern times. And here is where the challenge deepens.

The most important characteristic of our country is the scope, scale, and speed of change. Change defines it.

Technology alone is a revolution with vast consequences for every sphere — business, public services, lifestyle, and government. It has opened the world up, with attendant opportunities and, of course, risks. Individuals, partly through these changes, live quite differently, with infinitely more choice over their own lives. Businesses grow and decline with bewildering speed, making a thriving entrepreneurial sector a necessity. The development of human capital is vital for the future of the economy. And the fallout from all this creates new problems, like social care for increased numbers of elderly, and new victims, like those left behind or disadvantaged by the changes whirling around them.

This change requires new thinking. Labour has to rebuild. But how? It must get people thinking about policy—real policy, not one-liners that make a point (useful though those can be in an election campaign). Technology and its implications for everything, from the national health system to government itself, are the single most important dimension. But across the board, from infrastructure to housing to tax reform to welfare, the PL should be thinking through new solutions framed against how people live and work now.

Labour needs to regain economic credibility. It cannot address the future unless it is clear about the past and unless it shows it is completely confident in economic policy. Alternative and more effective economic models must be pondered.

Labour also needs to develop a dialogue with businesses about their challenges and needs, productivity, skills, and a modern industrial policy. At the same time, it must work out what a political organisation should look like today: how it makes decisions, how it communicates, and how it gets its message across.

It can be electable, but only with an agenda that is driven by values and informed by modernity; if it has strength and clarity of purpose; if it is a reformer, not just an investor in public services; if it gives working people more rights at work, including incentives to join a union; if it understands and appreciates that businesses create jobs, not government; and if it can be the change-maker, not the far-right-prone Opposition.

Above all, Labour must realise that a matter of policy can only be right if it is right as a matter of principle. Labour shouldn’t despair. It can win again. It can win again next time, but only if its comfort zone is the future and its values are its guide and not its distraction.

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