By the time of its second consecutive defeat in 1992, the Malta Labour Party had become as unelectable as the British Labour Party was under the left-wing Michael Foot in 1983.
Just like Britain society under Margaret Thatcher, Maltese society had changed radically during the first Nationalist decade, becoming more individualistic and consumerist. A billboard with a shopping trolley full of consumer goods with the slogan “l-ghazla f’idejk” (the choice is yours) symbolised the PN’s 1992 electoral campaign.
But unlike Thatcher, Eddie Fenech Adami had kept the welfare state intact while opening up the Maltese economy, offering greater consumer choice.
In a number of ways it was Fenech Adami who heralded the advent of “third way politics” in Malta. By keeping the welfare state intact while opening up the economy, he already occupied the centre ground of Maltese politics. What distinguished the PN from the emergent “third way” was widespread cronyism and uncontrolled state spending which kept everybody happy.
Unlike British new Labour which faced right-wing Tories, Malta’s new Labour had an even harder nut to crack: a rival party which offered something to everyone, glued together first by fear of old labour’s violent past, and following 1998, by the European dream.
While British new Labour had to purge itself of left-wing radicalism, Malta’s new Labour also had to excorcise a violent and corrupt past which defied any ideology. Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici had already started the cleansing process by expelling Lorry Sant. Other old guard ministers like Joe Grima left of their own account to find bluer pastures.
Far before being elected leader, Sant was obsessed with making Labour electable. Writing in it-Torca in 1990 Alfred Sant proclaimed that he would be “the first to agree with any proposal that would helped us regain the majority of votes for socialism. I would agree with it even if it came from the devil himself.”
Under Alfred Sant’s leadership, Labour responded by changing both the wrapping and the content. One of his first acts was to vacate the party’s Macina headquarters in Cottonera. A slick party machine based in Hamrun was quick to capatilise on the first cracks in the PN’s coalition. The campaign against the introduction of VAT served to create bridges with the self-employed while blurring the ideological faultlines of the political divide.
In the closing speech of a party conference in 1993, Sant made it clear that the party had to be open to everyone: “our members have to explain to everyone that those who are not against us are with us.”
In 1996 New Labour also made use of positive slogans such as “Ic-Cittadin L-Ewwel”, a slogan coined by the Partit Demokratiku Malti in 1987; the pragmatic “Labour simply works better”, and the business-friendly “Nifs Gdid lis-Settur Privat” (a breath of air for the private sector).
Sant’s new Labour project – a concoction of opportunism symbolised by the unholy alliance with hunters and trappers, and an uplifting modernising vision based on meritocracy – won the day in 1996. In government he showed enough self confidence to go as far as abolishing workers’ self management in the dockyard, something which Eddie Fenech Adami was too scared to do.
Yet rather unlike Blair who went on to win two more elections, Sant’s project foundered after an epochal showdown with former party leader Dom Mintoff in 1998. The new Labour project was further derailed by Sant’s obstinate opposition to EU membership which alienated the middle class. Ironically, Tony Blair was one of the leading international backers of Malta’s bid to join the EU.
Yet following two consecutive defeats, Alfred Sant seems to have re-discovered his 1996 days. Only time will tell whether the wine has matured with age or whether it was corked by resentment and bitterness.