Sunday, 10 January 2010

Independent: So far, Labour stands for nothing
10.1.10? by Daphne Caruana Galizia

Two years after losing the sixth of seven general elections since 1976, the Labour Party remains a policy desert. Joseph Muscat has been party leader for 19 months and we still don’t know what he stands for. The party he leads remains a milk-jelly morass of meaningless buzzwords that are completely at odds with the thinking of its core voters.

In his attempt at making the party all things for all men, he risks making it nothing and for no one.

The party emblem has been banished but no new one has replaced it. The party name has been wiped clean from all public events, conferences and demonstrations, and the words ‘moviment gdid’ used instead. The party flag has been buried, so that when the Labour leader manifests himself for the press or a television audience, he speaks beneath the national flag and that of the EU.

In his attempt at stripping Labour of its old identity he has left it with no identity at all. So far, Labour stands for nothing. Given that the momentum of change at the start of a person’s leadership is an indicator of what is to follow, it is likely that the next three years will be more of the same.

The gulf between Joseph Muscat’s words and his actions is now enormous and getting wider every day. He talks a lot of rot about fighting conservatism and making Malta more liberal, yet he is the first to cower at the prospect of making waves. Talk is cheap.

There he was kissing the Archbishop’s ring on New Year’s Day with the best of them. Here he is now, failing to take a stand on the criminal prosecution of a 21-year-old student for publishing a dirty story in a university newspaper. There he was then, keeping his lips sealed when a play that was staged all over the free world was banned from performance in Malta, though nobody can stop you reading it.

His position on the European Court of Human Rights ruling on crucifixes in Italian state schools was a shoddy piece of equivocation – trying to run with the hare, hunt with the hounds and have a glass of sherry with the huntsmen afterwards.

Muscat doesn’t even have the guts to put his money where his mouth is on the issue of divorce. “I am for divorce,” he tells us, “When I am Prime Minister I will put forward a divorce bill and withdraw the party whip so that all my MPs can vote as they please. I hope the Opposition party will do the same.”

A Prime Minister who means to legislate for divorce, rather than just prattling about it, does not withdraw the party whip. He uses it for a vote in favour. A Prime Minister who hopes for the votes of Opposition MPs to get his own divorce bill through, so that he doesn’t have to crack his own whip and take a firm stand in favour of divorce, deserves to have a real whip used to drive him off his fence-post.

I can’t have been the only one who noticed that Muscat makes a point of specifying that it is he – and not the Labour Party – who favours divorce. This, coupled with his repeated insistence that he will not use the party whip for a divorce bill, puts a rocket under the misplaced assumption of many that divorce will form part of Labour’s electoral programme for 2013.

When an item is included in a party’s electoral programme, the members of that party must vote with the whip on that particular issue. MPs stand for election on the party ticket and in representation of the party’s electoral programme. They cannot vote against divorce if they stood for election on a pro-divorce programme and if people voted for them as pro-divorce MPs in a pro-divorce party.

Labour is not going to include divorce in its electoral programme. There is the same level of religious fundamentalism and anti-divorce sentiment among Labour politicians as there is among Nationalist politicians. I would say that there is probably more of it in the Labour Party than there is in the Nationalist Party. Over the last 25 years, Labour’s defining factor has been fear of change and dogged opposition to it, while over the very same period the Nationalist Party’s defining factor has been the wholehearted seeking and embracing of change.

Those who have made the mistake of imagining that divorce is in Labour’s policy programme already – what policy programme? – fail to understand that the one thing which holds the Nationalist Party back from putting divorce into its electoral programme, now that the party is no longer led by Eddie Fenech Adami who had personal objections to the matter, is the very same thing which makes Joseph Muscat draw a distinction between his personal position on divorce and that of the party he leads.

The big obstacle standing between both parties and divorce is – you guessed it – fear of a haemorrhage of votes and of a battle royal waged for the consciences of the people, if not by the Catholic Church in its official capacity, then certainly by individual priests and monsignors. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but as Malta becomes more and more secular, religious fundamentalism has increased. It is not a contradiction in terms.

The Nationalist Party’s fear of what priests and prayer groups can do to wreak electoral havoc has been interpreted as obsequiousness and obedience to religious leaders. Muscat spent his first months as leader accusing government politicians of being conservative – but when it came to the crunch, it turned out to be quite a different thing. He has taken a personal position in favour of divorce but his party has not and will not, which means that his ‘I am in favour of divorce’ stance means nothing. People don’t want a pro-divorce party leader. They want divorce legislation. The two are different, and only fools believe that a pro-divorce leader means divorce legislation when divorce is not in a party’s electoral programme and the pro-divorce party leader has committed himself to withdrawing the parliamentary whip.

It’s the same with the matter of gay rights. The rights that gay people want – the ones that they do not have already by dint of being human and holding a European passport – all derive from marriage or its legal equivalent. So the only way that Labour is going to be able to deliver these rights when in government is by putting civil partnership for same-sex couples (so-called ‘gay marriage’, though marriage is most often anything but gay) into its electoral programme, allowing people to vote for it – or not.

But Labour is not going to do that for precisely the same reasons that it won’t be putting divorce into its electoral programme either. It knows that listing same-sex marriage in its manifesto for 2013 will unleash all of hell’s furies among its supporters, the most conservative people in the country, who even voted against EU membership because of the changes they feared it would bring.

Contrary to popular perception, if Labour includes divorce and gay marriage in its electoral programme, it will not meet with mocking and flame-fanning from the Nationalist Party, for roughly equal but opposite reasons: any such behaviour will provoke an extremely negative reaction from its own supporters, many of whom are neither politically nor religiously conservative (those who imagine that I am atypical in my views are way off the mark).

The Labour Party faffs around with the setting-up of a Gay Section – which only serves to underscore its belief that gay people are different to the rest and must be segregated. There is no Gay Section in the Nationalist Party not because it is homophobic, but because homosexuality is quite simply not an issue. It has certainly not been a barrier to progress right through the party hierarchy, for example. Only conservatives think of homosexual people as The Other, who must be sectioned off and defined by their sexuality. Setting up a political ghetto for gays is not a liberal move, but a ‘conservative-trying-hard-to-be-liberal’ one.

Instead of reading in our newspapers that the Labour Party has taken up an official position in favour of gay marriage, and that it has committed itself to legislating for same-sex civil partnerships, without removing the party whip, we have to content ourselves with First magazine last month, in which we were treated to “The Leader of the Opposition and Mrs Michelle Muscat invite us to their home in Burmarrad” and – hey ho – coincidentally the doorbell rings while the interviewer is sitting on the “comfortable sofa” and eating “Michelle’s home-made gingerbread Christmas trees”.

“The doorbell rings and a couple of their friends join us. Michelle speaks to them in French, which goes over my head, while Joseph introduces them to me in more sedate French, which I manage to understand. Laurent is a lecturer in history at the Sorbonne and his partner Michel is a make-up artist.”

“‘So your speaking about civil partnership rights for gays is not just a way for you to look cool and progressive?’ I somewhat cheekily ask Joseph. I also remind him that it was the Labour Party that decriminalised homosexuality in 1973 and that the Nationalist Party had voted against this. I was only a very young boy back then and the Leader of the Opposition not yet born. He grins, his eyes smiling mischievously and remarks casually: ‘Being progressive is looking towards the future and 1973 is a very long time ago. Let’s let bygones be bygones.”

Ah, but he didn’t answer the question. If the interviewer were not one of those gay men who probably believe that a vote for Joseph Muscat means a wedding-ring on their finger, he might have rephrased his question to be more specific: “Will the Labour Party put gay marriage in its electoral programme for 2013?” Then watch him squirm out of that one.

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