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INTERVIEW | Sunday, 30 March 2008

The sin of complacency

Complacency, Labour’s education secretary Wenzu Mintoff says, cost Labour their electoral victory. Now he wants Labour’s leaders and party president and secretary-general to assume their full responsibility.

Complacency among a select group in Labour’s leadership who were so sure of a Labour victory “they also wanted the full merit of victory” is at the roots of Labour’s latest defeat, argues Labour’s education secretary Wenzu Mintoff.
“Those who wanted to monopolise the party’s eventual success cannot now expect others who were excluded from the electoral campaign to share the blame for the defeat,” Mintoff says.
According to him, this select group were so sure of victory that they declined to accept the services of people who offered their help to the party. “They told those who offered their help not to worry because victory was certain.”
Wenzu Mintoff says he has not seen a single survey conducted by the party but the rumours in Labour quarters were that the party had a comfortable majority. “I think that this was true at the beginning of the campaign. But the rumours of a wide Labour margin persisted throughout the campaign even when other surveys showed otherwise.  The impression was that the party had such a comfortable majority that it could do with less effort.”
Mintoff is in no mood to find external justifications for the MLP’s defeat. To him, Labour must look within itself to find the reasons why it lost. He tells those who blamed the Labour defeat on the so called ‘power of incumbency’ – the PN government’s system of dispensing permits and promotions on the eve of the election – that it’s useless to give importance to factors which apply to every election.
While recognising the complete lack of distinction between state and party, through which the incumbent party ran two parallel campaigns one as a government and one as a party, Mintoff looks within his own party to finds the causes of a defeat.
“I think that it is useless for the MLP to recriminate that the PN won because it played this incumbency card. They will keep on playing this card even in the next election.”
So rather than crying over spilt milk, Mintoff says the Opposition should propose legislation in parliament to redress imbalances. “It is up to us in parliament to propose new laws to control a caretaker government’s power of incumbency. In parliament we should assume the role of legislators by proposing new laws on issues like party financing and the government’s powers in an electoral campaign.  It is useless to play the role of victims.”
Despite being elected by the party to serve as its educational secretary – one of the posts in the party’s administration – Wenzu Mintoff was not involved in the campaign.
“I spent a whole year organising run of the mill activities on the formation of members which had nothing to do with the campaign. But I was never given a reply when I asked to be involved in the campaign. I even offered to take five weeks’ unpaid leave to work for the party on a voluntary basis.”
But Mintoff won’t reveal who declined his offer. “I have all this in writing and I will speak about this in the right fora.”
He even reveals that the administration responsible for the day to day running of the party was not even meeting on a regular basis in the year before the election. “For some time we were meeting every two or three months but we didn't even meet once during the electoral campaign.”
And the vacuum created by Alfred Sant’s sudden illness also contributed to this communication breakdown in the party. “I suspect that some took advantage of this vacuum. There were also elements in the MLP’s leadership who were more concerned with their district campaign. The campaign was practically run by couple of persons.”
He also question’s Labour’s preparedness to face a general election. Back in November Mintoff tried to organise a gathering for new graduates. But he was to discover that the party did not even have a list of new graduates. “When you see these things one realises that we were not really prepared when we could not even do such an elementary thing like a mailshot to that sector which should be most receptive to new ideas.”
Mintoff formally asked the University Rector, offering to paying the expenses of the mailshot without requesting the addresses of students in respect of the Data Protection Act. But he did not even receive an acknowledgment.
Mintoff is also disappointed that a number of people who offered to assist the party on a voluntary basis were not given any space. He says they included people with knowledge in information technology, people qualified in conducting opinion surveys and university graduates. “This was one of the MLP’s greatest shortcomings in the campaign. For some time one could not even find the party’s candidates on the web site.”
He also notes that the same party which turned down voluntary help, which would have come at no cost, invested vast amounts of money in a big screen which “only served the purpose of enlarging those who appeared on it,” he notes sardonically.
So should secretary-general Jason Micallef accept responsibility for the defeat?
“Everybody with a decisive say in the strategic and tactical mistakes in the campaign should resign,” he says, going on to specify that this includes everyone in the party leadership – the leader, his two deputy leaders, the secretary-general and the president.
“They should take the honourable step taken by Alfred Sant and Charles Mangion.”
But shouldn’t Wenzu Mintoff also submit his resignation as an elected official of the party?
“Although I had no say in the campaign I feel that now is the time for the party to elect all those who should run it from now and for the next election.”
He even argues that the mandate of the party’s elected officials has already expired and therefore everybody should submit himself to the verdict of the delegates. “Some are trying to argue that our mandate expires in January next year. In this way they try to hang on for another year but this is simply anti-democratic.”
Mintoff says the two deputy leaders, Charles Mangion and leadership contender Michael Falzon, occupied themselves with their own campaigns in their districts and doubts whether they had such a big say in decisions related to campaign strategy.
But he points out that “the leadership, including the two deputy leaders, always projected themselves as a sort quintumvirate,” referring to the leadership trio and secretary-general Jason Micallef and party president Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi.
Now that the party faces a long drawn out contest for the next Labour leader, Mintoff is not pronouncing himself in favour of any of the candidates, insisting that before the election for the party’s new leaders, everybody’s responsibilities should be established.
“Only when we know who was responsible for the decisions taken during the campaign will we be in a position to elect the new party leadership and administration. There are a number of valid persons for the post of leader.  But at this stage we should have an analysis of Labour’s electoral defeats in the past 20-25 years.”
Mintoff also doesn’t think it is time to widen the suffrage for the new party leader to members as suggested by George Abela. “In principle it might sound right but it is too radical a reform in such a delicate moment.” Wenzu Mintoff says the MLP right now is akin to a pregnant woman in labour who is still not sure whether she would give birth to healthy child. “Putting on the table radical proposals at such a delicate moment is not appropriate.”
Despite his focus on content and ideas, Wenzu Mintoff is aware that the new leader needs to be a “good product on the electoral market”.
“This analogy between politics and the market is unfortunate but we cannot ignore reality. Our political system is being increasingly Americanised. Like it or not, this is what happening. Marketing, charisma and personality are of primary importance. We have to keep this in mind.”
According to Mintoff the new leader must balance image with the party’s roots and soul. “We cannot throw away all the battles of the left and the centre-left in Malta and at an international level simply because we are losing elections. We have to find a market for our product but we must not lose our soul in the process. Otherwise we’d be selling the same product already sold by the PN.”
And despite his attachment to democratic socialism, Mintoff insists that the party should not remain fossilised. Averse to Tony Blair’s brand of new labour politics, Mintoff is wary of modernisation for its own sake, but he is willing to question the axioms of Maltese old labour. “Sometimes I ask people in party clubs on what it means to be a Labourite. Some reply that this simply means believing in things like neutrality.”
He even challenges the Labour party to discuss the relevance of neutrality in a post Cold War world. “Neutrality is not in itself a principle. It made sense in the bipolar Cold War scenario. We need to reinterpret its meaning. For me what is important is that we are not lapdogs of the world’s only remaining superpower. It is also important that we give priority to Third World issues. We need to look at the immigration problem from the perspective of global inequalities. We should not stop at saying that immigration is an affliction and stop there.  We have to keep the fundamentals and re-interpret them in a modern context.”
Wenzu Mintoff is very critical of the way Malta has reactivated its application for Partnership for Peace.
“We have to see what PFP really is. If it is simply a peacekeeping exercise we should not have any ideological hang-ups. But if it’s just another way to increase NATO control over other nations it’s another matter. What’s sure is that it was not the best time for such a decision. It was not the best way to engage with the opposition in a situation where the government does not even have the support of the majority of the population. Surely this decision did not represent a new start for a less divisive style of politics.”
Education should be the key issue for the Labour Party in the next years according to Wenzu Mintoff.
Mintoff acknowledges that the present government has opened many opportunities at the tertiary and post-secondary level. But education at a lower level has been neglected. “We need to focus on vocational and technical training. That is why we have unemployable people. It is easy to single out single mothers for begetting more children and to call them bums or parasites on the welfare system.  But we have to dig deeper to see if these people were exposed to drug use and unprotected sex.”
While insisting that Labour should not forget its roots and the people in the inner harbour region, Mintoff insists the party should reach out to the middle classes. “We have to make sure that those who experience social mobility in the move from the south to the north do not become ashamed of their roots. It has become fashionable for people to disown their background when they experience social mobility.”
Party financing is another issue which should mark the difference between the centre left and the centre right in Maltese politics says Mintoff. “It would be a big mistake if the MLP tries to play the Nationalist game of trying to collect as much money as it can irrespective of where it comes from. We can never beat the Nationalists in this game as they are greater experts. This game would also come at a price because those investing in the party now would accept a dividend when the party is elected.”
Mintoff argues that democracy is being undermined by the party’s private donors. “We are no longer in a one man, one vote situation but we are living in a situation were few people have many votes and are ready to buy influence… Our democracy is at stake.”
Throughout his political career in the Labour Party and Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green Party which he co-founded, Wenzu Mintoff distinguished himself as a crusader against corruption. But judging by the fact that the PN won the election despite the MLP’s onslaught on this issue, was corruption really a priority for voters?
Mintoff makes a sharp distinction between petty corruption on minor things, which is part of the Mediterranean temperament, and corruption involving big contracts which is made at the expense of the taxpayer. “If people think that zero tolerance means no monkey business even in petty things, people could be turned off fearing an intrusion in their lives.”
The kind of corruption which affects voters according to Mintoff is that which affects people’s pockets in their everyday lives. “If you repeatedly fail to get a driving licence and have to pay a bribe to pass from a driving examination test, it’s a different matter.  It becomes an issue for the people.”
Corruption involving big contracts could also affect voters but only if the opposition convinces voters that they are paying for it from their taxes. “If you convince people that they are paying more taxes to make up for the shortfall in public funds, it can become an issue.”
But Mintoff admits that it is very hard for a political party to explain this.
“Some simply argue: if someone is breaking the rules, why should I not be allowed to do the same?”
Corruption was a central issue in both the 1987 and 2008 elections. Yet in both cases the electoral result was very close. Is this a sign that corruption is not a major vote swinger? Wenzu Mintoff thinks that Malta has not evolved to a stage where accountability, transparency and integrity are considered as intrinsic values.
“Although I always considered corruption as an important issue, I very much fear that when the MLP was constantly harping on zero tolerance, people could have misunderstood it thinking that a Labour government would not close an eye even for the small fry in their everyday dealings.”
The 2008 election stands out for the PN’s successful GonziPN strategy which turned a contest between two parties in to a contest between two leaders. Mintoff thinks that the electoral system is partly to blame for this because people are not simply voting for a party but for their next Prime Minister.
“This was accentuated by the PN’s realisation that despite being in government for twenty years they had a winning card in having a relatively new leader.”
According to Mintoff this also served to amplify the contrast between Lawrence Gonzi and Alfred Sant. “Our leader was not a crowd-puller or a demagogue whose charisma satisfies populist instincts, although he had other strong qualities. Still the debate between the two leaders took place at the eleventh hour when many people were not even watching it.”
He also notes that the MLP did not even try to react to this strategy. “I cannot understand why the MLP leader only appeared on the PN’s billboards. There was not a single MLP billboard showing the leader alone or together with the two deputy leaders. This was a total capitulation to the PN’s campaign. We went to such an extreme in accepting the effectiveness of the PN’s campaign that we seemed ashamed of showing our own leader.”

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