It is often said that the two parties have lost their ideological distinctiveness, and that they are simply differently coloured versions of the same thing. Less prosaically, the red/blue Du Maurier pack divide of the 1980s was not just pathetic, but also prophetic.
With respect to Labour, the storyline is that socialism and the Left were jettisoned sometime in the mid-1990s. Their place was taken by a Harvard-glossed stil maniġerjali (managerial approach), and eventually a full-blown neoliberal package of sorts that preached pro-business and acted obsessed with credit ratings, laissez-faire development and warm welcomes to super-money disguised as super-talent. The result was Joseph Muscat’s astonishing success at separating the Opposition from its votes and filling Labour’s coffers in the process.
While much of that may be true, it is a partial view. It overlooks the fact that, while politics may thrive on the expediency of the here and now, it also has to deal with longer-term political memory and legacies. Thus, and even as they cohabit with the Gasans and Azeri gas, Labourites preserve the memories of Terinu, l-Interdett, and Karin Grech.
It is to Muscat’s credit that he understands the value of relics. The obvious example is his rehabilitation of Mintoff with a warm ‘ejj’oqgħod’ (‘feel at home’) at the Labour headquarters in 2009, but there’s more. While his present success rests mostly on a cornucopia, it is one that retains some sort of claim on the party legacy of socialist nationalism and class struggle.
Take the donation to Puttinu Cares and, last Sunday, the news that social housing will benefit from a windfall of €50 million. In both cases, Muscat’s emphasis was on the source of the money: the Individual Investment Programme (IIP), known to common people as the sale of passports, and to sanctimonious activists as ‘Shame on You’.
Muscat’s success…retains some sort of claim on the party legacy of socialist nationalism and class struggle
Critics were quick to point out that this was Muscat’s attempt to launder money, so to say, by means of a devious association between the sale of passports and the public good. Even if my view as a supporter of the IIP is that there was no need to launder anything, it is certainly true that Muscat’s public benevolence with Russian money is a political sleight.
Two sleights, in fact, because both the Puttinu and the social housing donations rehearse one of the mainstays of Labour political memory. I remember a little girl in a shop in Valletta sometime in the early 1980s saying, much to the delight of her adult audience, that “inħobbu lil Mintoff għax iġibilna l-flus” (‘we love Mintoff because he brings us money’). This was a few years after the Red China Dock and just before Gaddafi sent out his gunboats.
So entrenched was the figure of Mintoff as a sort of Robin Hood abroad, that when Eddie Fenech Adami came back from his first trip to India as Prime Minister, the joke was that all he brought back was a handful of arrows. (Indians, you see, shoot arrows – but never mind.)
Both China and Gaddafi are now otherwise occupied, but the image of a Labour prime minister who brings to Malta the booty captured by his corsairing cunning is still a powerful one. The IIP is doubly successful, if it can be grafted onto longer-term political stock.
Much the same thing is going on in other departments. By and large, Muscat has come through the Daphne Caruana Galizia matter largely unscathed. Domestically, it may even be that it has strengthened him. One of the reasons has to do with how he has latched it on to a deep-rooted party legacy.
Fairly or not, Caruana Galizia’s memory, and the circle of people who chant slogans in English at vigils, are identified in the minds of Labourites, and perhaps more broadly, with class hatred. It really doesn’t take very much for Muscat to be able to position himself and his party as the antidote. It helps that the Daphne cause has been taken up by foreigners.
Muscat’s on to a truly rich seam here. Labour, you see, is once again defending the people of Malta against entrenched ħamalli-bashing elites and their foreign allies. No Labour reliquary is complete without a piece of true indħil barrani (foreign interference). Muscat wasn’t being stupid when he said that the May Day meeting would drown out the Daphne Project. On the contrary, he was reaching out to party history. Malta first and foremost.
IVF, and perhaps even gay rights and the rest, are not too distantly related. As a historian colleague of mine has argued, here too is a masterclass of alchemy. If Labour cannot be socialist, it can at least be progressive – and in the process connect to Labour’s historical legacy of breathless social progress.
Muscat has made Labour, if not necessarily Malta, great. He has done so partly by connecting people to their past, while making them feel it’s all about the present.