Red may have vanished from Labour’s imagery and blue may have become hip as the PL tried walking out of Dom Mintoff’s shadow. On the centenary of the former prime minister’s birth, Kurt Sansone asks if his legacy lives on.
It is pure coincidence that Dom Mintoff was born on the feast day of Christ the Saviour – but not for his followers.
Detractors would have a different story to tell, but for those born in the poverty stricken area of Tal-Bastjun in Cospicua like Mr Mintoff, the former Prime Minister was indeed a saviour.
Veterans who remember the Second World War and its aftermath describe themselves as “socialist Mintoffians” rather than Labourites. The label has a deep-rooted meaning for those who feel Mr Mintoff lifted them out of poverty and gave their children a chance to prosper.
Especially for them, this was a man who rose to the highest echelons of power, which culminated with the social revolution of the 1970s and laid the groundwork for a new middle class.
Even when they were faced with the prospect of eternal damnation as a result of Archbishop Michael Gonzi’s interdiction of Labour officials and sympathisers in the 1960s, Mr Mintoff’s followers stood behind him.
The architect from Cospicua was larger than life, and his aura continues to be the subject of debate 100 years after his birth.
For some within the Labour Party, Mr Mintoff’s legacy continues to be the yardstick against which today’s policy decisions are measured.
Aaron Farrugia, a young Labour candidate, says he does get this comparison thrown at him by some of the party’s veterans. Some of it is nostalgia, but some of it is ideologically motivated.
He feels Mintoff’s legacy is an integral part of the chain that leads up to today’s Labour Party, which is rooted in Joseph Muscat’s broad voter appeal.
“Dom Mintoff built the idea of a progressive movement for change but his jargon was confrontational and at times classist. It is this confrontational attitude that the veterans feel is missing,” he says.
However, Mr Farrugia is reluctant to draw comparisons between Mr Mintoff and Dr Muscat. “The circumstances are completely different. The concerns and aspirations people have today are different from those in Mintoff’s time, and so even the remedies have to be different.”
He says Dr Muscat broadened the Labour Party’s appeal by addressing the aspirations of those occupying the middle ground. “Joseph Muscat has allowed the common men and women to dream again and believe their aspirations could be met.”
The tolerance of bad governance today is as bad as the corruption he allowed to fester
In the Eddie Fenech Adami tradition, he adds, Dr Muscat also opened up to business people, in the belief that if they did well, the country would prosper.
“The government should act as regulator while allowing the private sector the space to prosper,” Mr Farrugia says.
During a commemorative ceremony last week, Dr Muscat described the all-time high employment figures and record low unemployment as the best gifts Labour could give Mr Mintoff.
Dr Muscat has often flaunted his pro-business approach as the recipe for success, something that makes some within the Labour Party cringe.
But do not expect open dissent on this approach, which has delivered good economic headlines, prosperity for many, and left others on the sidelines.
Muscat’s Labour has upheld the tradition of a strong leader who is revered, according to sociologist Michael Briguglio.
“This characteristic was introduced by Dom Mintoff after the post-war split with Paul Boffa and consolidated in the 1970s when he clashed with intellectuals within the party,” Dr Briguglio says. This top-down dynamic, he adds, manifests itself in the likes of Glenn Bedingfield, the Prime Minister’s aide, who on his blog lashes out at all government critics.
Dr Briguglio hits another raw nerve for many within Labour wanting to put the not-so-glorious moments of the past behind them. He says the tolerance of bad governance and cronyism today is as bad as the corruption Mr Mintoff allowed to fester around him in the late 1970s and 1980s.
“There is no violence, but corruption is done in a more polished manner,” Dr Briguglio says, with certain ministers being afforded untouchable status.
He says that Minister Without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi embodies the description of “super saints” coined by the late Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain in describing the system of patronage in Malta.
Dr Mizzi, who was embroiled in the Panama Papers affair, continued on as minister after a cosmetic Cabinet reshuffle. Others, like Manuel Mallia, were rehabilitated after 18 months, and former parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon was immediately given a government job after resigning in the wake of the Gaffarena scandal.
“There were untouchable ministers in Mintoff’s time, despite the power he commanded,” Dr Briguglio says, “and the situation in this respect remains unchanged today”. However, he believes this may have little to do with a Labour tradition and more to do with society’s attitude towards corruption and bad governance.
Indeed, the 1987 election, which saw the Nationalist Party win after 16 years in Opposition, was only clinched by 4,000 votes, despite the violence and rampant corruption that preceded it.
“Although many are sour because of bad governance, it does not seem to be an electoral determinant, especially because the economy is doing well and the alternative is not credible.”
He notes that Dr Muscat continues to benefit from the wide alliance built over the past eight years, something that sets him apart from Mr Mintoff. “Mintoff’s Labour was more socialist and workerist in attitude, which at times clashed with other sections of the middle class,” he notes.
This bridging with different sectors of the middle and business classes started by Alfred Sant in the 1990s was transformed by Dr Muscat into a winning strategy, Dr Briguglio says.
This broad coalition does not come without its contradictions, he adds, but Dr Muscat’s charisma ensures that it sticks together.
For the time being, a ‘socialist Mintoffian’ can still vote for the same party as a millionaire businessman enamoured with Labour’s can-do attitude.
Published in The Sunday Times of Malta.