Vince Farrugia | Sunday, 12 April 2009

Is Labour a lost cause?

I was declared Man of the Week last week by MaltaToday for saying something I did not exactly say. I did say the Labour Party is in the dark and I believe that PL has been in the dark since 31 March 1979. But I do not believe that Labour has always been in the dark. On the contrary, there was a time when Labour was really the light and was condemned by those frightened by its enlightenment.
But times changed, everything else changed, but Labour stood still. This is the tragedy of Labour today. It is not a question of an old or a young leader. It’s much more than that.
There was a time when Labour was the only progressive force in Malta. In the first half of the 20th century Labour literally fought against the forces of darkness. In the immediate post-war period Labour won a landslide victory and the Maltese decided Labour was the movement that really mattered. The General Workers Union was also born at this time and the future, then, belonged to Labour. Labour, in the immediate post-war period, was not in the dark.
Labour, however, is a very unstable organisation. Its leaders are unable to sustain stability within the party. I see this as an inability to decide where they want to go. When the leadership is insecure and unclear on its vision for the future, it creates tension and instability, forcing a party to introduce unacceptable disciplinary rules and unnecessary regimentation. Labour is replete with such behaviour.
I can understand why Dom Mintoff in the 1950s decided the best option for Malta, as seen at that time from the limited angle of a small island in a turbulent world, was integration with Great Britain. Britain was then still great. Britain was still an empire. Britain then had a relatively high standard of living compared to Malta’s very low standard.
But even then, any economist worth his salt (and Mintoff had great economists from the UK advising him like Dr Balogh and Dr Sears) knew the wind of change across Europe and the rest of the world was blowing into a different direction. People everywhere wanted independence, not integration. Countries under Communist control, and in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, wanted independence and the freedom to build the nation’s economy, not according to the colonialist’s design, but according to the potential of the country.
In Malta the Nationalist Party had already embarked on its campaign for national independence. Labour took long to realise the Nationalists really had the right policy. When integration negotiations reached their logical failure, Labour then decided in favour of independence. As Labour now do with EU membership, considered as a ‘no option’ choice after they whimsically sought a partnership which existed only in the imagination of its leaders, they embraced independence only after their dream of integration proved to be nothing but fantasy.
During the struggle for independence, Labour already then exhibited another of its inherent weaknesses: their inability to secure strategic alliances. If Labour was attuned to strategic thinking, it would have first and foremost found a way how to work in close collaboration with the PN and the dominant Catholic Church. That was what the country needed most then. But cooperation and consensus building is so strange to Labour. It’s just not the Labour way of doing things.
Labour leaders prefer conflict and arguments. There was no more inopportune a moment for Labour to start a war with the Church. The principles on which it got into a very ugly battle with the Church were in no doubt correct, but what an unfortunate time it was for the Maltese to be divided on a pathetic local issue when the country’s most important issues were being discussed in London. It was certainly not the time for Labour to fall in this colonialist trap of divide and rule. It is incredible that Alfred Sant, when it was Malta’s turn to again negotiate with the EU, again like Dom Mintoff before him, let the Nationalist leaders negotiate on their own with the support of genuine Maltese from the organised civil society. On the two most important events in Malta’s recent history, Labour leaders failed the country badly.
Labour fought for independence but it was Dr Giorgio Borg Olivier who won independence. It was a question of Giorgio’s calm intelligence and savoir faire and Mintoff’s belligerence and irrational diplomacy. History is a cruel judge. But independence will forever be judged as Borg Olivier’s great victory. The Republic, in my view, still awaits the judgment of history.
The choice Labour leaders made after their election to power in 1971, between a closer collaboration with Britain or the emerging European Community, or the option of semi-antagonism to all around us except for Libya and, to a certain degree, Italy, still awaits judgment. What is sure is that Labour picked the hardest way of developing the country. I was a practicing economist then and already my assessment was that Malta could have picked a softer way. What could have happened had Malta followed a different strategy is worthy of a detailed analysis.
The economic and political strategy of the 1970s led to 31 March, 1979. The British left and Malta decided on neutrality between the superpowers. We had a unique Association Agreement with the EC that could have led us first to a customs union and eventually to full membership. Labour did not even want to think about this approach. The European Economic Community, now growing rapidly into a real European Union, was of no interest to Labour.
Labour believed, as they still do, that 31 March 1979 was a victory and an end in itself. They could not and cannot understand that it was the end of the past and the beginning of a new future for Malta. Labour opted for a future that, in practice, was an extension of the past.
Their choice was based on two basic tenets, soon to be dumped by everyone else. Labour believed the superpowers would remain the dominant feature of world politics and economics and that it would, permanently, make sense for little Malta to stay out of any involvement with the emerging EC, perceived by Labour as nothing more than an appendage of the USA. Neutrality in a world permanently dominated by the Soviets and the USA became a dogma no one dared contradict.
Another dogmatic belief for Labour is socialism. Most other socialist parties have now reduced this to a belief in an inclusive society and the rule of solidarity as a basis of social justice. But not Labour in Malta. They held on to the belief that a national economic strategy based on socialism, including the ownership of important areas of production and of the banks, made sense. When Labour’s two basic philosophies both collapsed, Labour in Malta did not wake up to face realities. Labour should have re-founded itself, if not in 1979, then at least in 1987, or in 1998, or at the latest in 2003.
For Labour the bells never toll. It made no difference to them that everyone else wanted to join the EU. They held on fast to their antagonism. And it is not a question of the person who occupies the top post. Whether it was Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, Alfred Sant or Joseph Muscat, Labour holds on to its defunct philosophies, old strategies, old hatreds and old fantasies. They continue to castigate and besmirch those who dare make them move to the right direction. They hold to their heart those who bow to their intransigence.
Yes, there’s something fundamentally wrong with Labour. The PN moves on because of a tremendous ability of being aware. In 1979 they went for the European Union. Labour stuck to neutrality and the status quo. Thirty years later Labour euro-speaks, but it is still not convinced. Labour looks backwards as it wants to move forward. The PN moved from the political right to the political centre and made the centre-ground of Maltese politics their own. Eddie Fenech Adami re-founded the Nationalist Party. Lawrence Gonzi now developed the PN into an all-embracing political movement.
Labour stands still. They insist on remaining on the left side of politics. They hold on to basic philosophies that are completely outdated. They are in the dark. They have been in the dark for at least 30 years. Now many Labour supporters have to decide. Thirty years is too long a wait to see the light. It is probably an incurable blindness. That is why many erstwhile Labour supporters are moving elsewhere.

Vince Farrugia is a PN candidate for the MEP elections


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