Michael Falzon | Sunday, 07 December 2008

The earthquake that shook no one

The other weekend saw the Labour Party’s ‘historic’ general conference that changed its name, as well as many odd bits and pieces in the party’s statute. While many of these changes are welcome, to me it does not seem that they will be enough to bring about the much needed new ‘mentality’ within the Labour Party.
At least this is what one can surmise from the way the party’s weekly paper reports, ‘news’ and political stories, and from the messages in the speeches and statements made by party MPs. More so the style and content of the oratory that is continually gushing from the mouths of the two deputy leaders, Anglu Farrugia and Toni Abela. Unlike Joseph Muscat, these two keep on spouting more of the same old drivel.
The change that was originally planned to be made over a year – but that would only take six months according to Muscat’s ill-advised boasts – has failed to come up to expectations and has left no valid or substantial impact on the Maltese political scene.
Joseph Muscat promised an earthquake but the truth is that he just produced a damp squib that hardly shook anyone. Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s successful bid to block Muscat’s attempt to change the party’s ideological ‘credentials’ tells quite a lot. The idea behind the ill-fated proposed change in the statute’s reference to the party’s political ideology was, of course, a symbolic move. Describing the party’s ideology as ‘social democratic’ rather than ‘democratic socialist’ was not the end of the world and hardly matters except in a symbolic way. But the gesture sent the message that the party was moving on and leaving the past behind it. KMB’s successful endeavour to stop the proposed change is, of course, also symbolic. It symbolises the very opposite of what the intended change meant to symbolise: the harsh reality that the Labour Party cannot shake off its past.
In one of my contributions to the press a few months ago, when it was obvious that Muscat was going to become the Labour Party leader, I wrote that Muscat’s “only real way forward is to somehow ditch the clique acting as the all-powerful ‘party machinery’ that would have helped to make him leader in the first place.” I added that this was a very difficult – but not impossible – task; but at the end of the day, this was “what will break or make Muscat’s leadership stint.”
The last few months have shown that the clique that helped Muscat to become leader has clung onto power and has managed to stall all attempts that Muscat could have made to hold it back. The fact that the changes in the party’s statute did not modify the responsibilities of the general secretary in any way, and did not institutionalise the post of chief executive officer, tells it all. The people who were responsible for the party’s unexpected electoral debacle last March are still running the show.
Writing in Illum just after Joseph Muscat was elected party leader (Għażiż Joseph… - June 8), former GWU deputy secretary general, Emmanuel Micallef advised Muscat that his first priority was to put the party on a sound footing as he had inherited a sickly party (partit marradi) that needed an immediate psychological and physical cure. He warned that the Labour Party was a divided party that had lost its credibility with hardly any support amongst young people, and that it was paranoid, and closed up unto itself.
Micallef cautioned Muscat not to keep harping that everybody has a place in the party because there were some who had no business to remain there. The party machine needed a change of oil and a change of those parts that had rusted and deteriorated and it would be wrong if Muscat allowed it to be driven by the same people as before. The needed clean-up was in the party’s very roots, not just in its appearance. It was the spiders that had to be removed, not just the cobwebs: “Mhux id-dehra trid tnaddaf imma l-għeruq. Mhux l-għanqbut imma l-brimb...” Micallef also insisted that Muscat had to ditch those who would cling to him in order to protect their position of power.
I quoted extensively from Micallef’s article because in hindsight it makes a much more interesting read today, six months after his piece was published. If truth be told, the party machine has not had the recommended oil change, let alone a change of the rusted and deteriorated parts! Those who had feathered their nest in the party’s internal structures are still running the show. The earthquake that had to shake them off was hardly noticeable and it shook no one. From this point of view, Muscat’s stint in the MLP leadership has been a complete failure.
Muscat’s promise that he will provoke a real change within the Labour Party has not materialised and he ended having to play a cat and mouse game with those who were responsible for the mess that the party was in after it lost its third election in a row. It is obvious that Joseph Muscat did not have the clout to sweep them away.
This does not mean that he has not made inroads with the general public or that his chances of winning the next general elections have evaporated into thin air. But that is another matter.
It will certainly be very difficult for the PN to avoid a defeat in the next general elections – even though it is too early to make any predictions. However a Labour government fashioned from a genuinely new and invigorated Labour party would certainly be a much better proposition than a recycling of the old stuff under a leader who only manages to brush away the dust under the carpet instead of making a clean sweep of things.
It might well be that Joseph Muscat has been forced by circumstances beyond his control to take longer to bring about the promised change in his party and that he still intends to carry out the promised reforms, willy-nilly.
But my gut feeling is that he has lost the paramount chance to do it in the right time to achieve the greatest impact.


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