Tuesday, 26 January 2010

MaltaToday: Labour general conference - Programming the progressives


Is Joseph Muscat’s rainbow coalition of progressives and moderates, to be given life in a 44-point ‘programmatic motion’ (read manifesto) another one-man show like GonziPN?


Labour is not reinventing the wheel when it presents itself to voters as a “coalition” – it was the former PN (and most industrious of all) secretary-general Joe Saliba who back in 2007 declared the PN as a “coalition of people from all walks of life”, and that the party “will fail and lose the election, when this coalition breaks up.”
Saliba’s stark realisation that the PN’s coalition could break up had in fact contributed to the strategy re-think inside the PN, which led the party to contest the 2008 election under the ‘GonziPN’ banner: the premise that the leader could attract voters who no longer identify themselves with the party.
The electorate was regaled with the spectacle of a one-man show which ultimately proved successful in keeping Lawrence Gonzi in power. But Gonzi was soon to find out that he had an unstable coalition of core loyalists and a coterie of upstarts and disgruntled backbenchers, who for different reasons question the centralisation of power in the hands of the leader. And as we saw in the Franco Debono episode, the vote cast by the Speaker before parliament’s Christmas recess killed once and for all the myth that the Maltese two-party system was tightly water-proofed against political instability. In reality it showed how one single MP could bring the whole edifice down.
Joseph Muscat’s “movement of moderates and progressives” – a marketing brand he invented during his party’s leadership contest – might well be his own way of strengthening his leadership by presenting himself as the leader of a coalition which is even greater than the party.
Since the movement is an informal, conceptual offshoot (and not a statutory organ of the PL) Muscat might well be emulating Gonzi in building his own parallel power base in a way that it is not limited to internal party structures.
It could be no sheer coincidence that the new movement of moderates and progressives is being launched in the same general conference that will also be asked to abolish the post of secretary-general: a move that will eliminate a potential, rival power base within the party. Muscat will keep his hand-picked CEO, an apparatchik in the form of James Piscopo.
There could be a silver lining in all this. By presenting himself as the leader of a movement transcending Labour’s traditional confines, Muscat’s attempts to push forward a progressive agenda will not be hampered by inner party wrangling
But this begs the question: what is so irresistibly progressive about this virtual movement whose identity is being forged by a sort of manifesto – dubbed a ‘programmatic motion’ – that lists 44 principles which are set to be approved by the Labour Party’s conference?

Prog-rocking the conference
One suspects that by appealing to both progressives and moderates – two apparently contradictory terms – Labour is simply saying that everyone can feel part of the brand new movement. For who isn’t progressive or moderate in some way or another? Even UK Tory leader David Cameron recently appropriated the ‘P’ word.
Look at the origin of the catchphrase – progressives and moderates were, respectively, the Muscat and George Abela avant-garde in the Labour leadership elections. When Muscat won, he sought to take both camps under his rainbow umbrella.
But the greatest proof that Labour doesn’t want to irk anyone is the absence of a formal rejection of racism and xenophobia in the 44 principles treasured by moderates and progressives.
The motion pays lip service to secular values by identifying those who believe that the “state should not interfere in the private life of individuals” and those who believe in “the respect for diversity of opinions and orientations” among the potential allies of the PL.
At the same time, the new movement is wide open to those “who treasure the fundamental values of Maltese and Gozitans”, whatever these might be.
The movement is open to all those who value unspecified “civil rights” – but no direct reference is made to divorce or gay marriages or civil unions.
Pandering to economic liberals, the motion refers to private enterprise as “the principle engine of the Maltese economy” and calls for “responsible tax cuts” as a “strong and effective incentive for growth”.
Significantly absent from the 44 founding principles of this coalition is any reference to the redistribution of wealth through taxation, even if the motion does reiterate the left’s traditional commitment to free healthcare, the abolition of poverty and improved public and social services. How Labour plans to balance its commitment to lower taxes and spend more on health and public services remains a mystery.
Surely funds could be saved by cutting on the public sector’s pork barrel spending. But will this be enough to compensate for the loss in tax revenue and the rise in health and welfare costs brought about by the changing demography?
What distinguishes Labour’s motion from the PN’s astute strategy which was presented to the electorate as a fait accompli is its intellectual honesty. And vanity. The ‘programmatic motion’ – a term reminiscent of stuffy Marxist meetings – frankly admits that Labour may not be able to win on its own steam because a number of “moderates, progressives and political liberals are not yet prepared to adhere to the Labour Party because of their roots, experiences and cultural orientation.”
The motion also warns that a growing section of the population is losing its trust in the political system and is now more willing to vote for “marginal parties”, or not vote at all.
But instead of calling for changes in the electoral system that would recognise the new dynamism and pluralism of Maltese society, and finally make it possible for new parties to get representation in parliament and possible participation in real coalitions, Muscat is proposing a single-party coalition with an anonymous mass of so-called moderates and progressives.
Ultimately, it could be the perfect recipe for zero-sum politics: because the opposite sides of the coalition equation tend to cancel each other out, making the prospect of change very unlikely. Liberal voters might well end up voting for Muscat’s “movement of moderates and progressives” under the impression that it will introduce divorce, for example, only to find out that despite Muscat’s election as Prime Minister he still lacks a parliamentary majority for its introduction. Perhaps the moderates will take the blame.
Ultimately the movement for progressives and moderates will remain what it is – a propagandistic construct, because when election time comes, nobody will be voting for it. Voters won’t be voting for abstract coalitions, but for single MPs whose loyalty is towards their party and constituents.
By basing his coalition on vague, half-baked and contradictory messages, Muscat might well be sowing the seeds of discord in a future Labour government. Just as Gonzi did before him in the last general election.

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