• Brendan Rhys Hewer

The People's Pact With Labour

‘Bread and games’ is a winning strategic decision precisely because people love the dough.

At the heart of the Labour Party’s success is a story. A tale of the ascent of one man - Joseph Muscat - who bears his people’s failures and absolves them whole in the name of his vision of unity and progress. This same vision propels itself irresistibly over an exhausted and unravelling regime, ridden with the boils and blackened sores of irrelevance.

Gone are the old ways! A novel face approaches - a fresh face, scented in the perfumes of meritocracy: “If one of Joseph Muscat's ministers acts improperly, he will be out the next day.” Muscat, a man of liberal democratic Europe, knows better than to forsake the State's cleanliness and institutions.

At the heart of the Labour Party’s success is a myth. Clandestinely subsumed within its polished formula is not only more of the same, but a recognition of unique honesty: that some of the things that make Malta tick are precisely the things it had condemned to obsoletion in 2013.

The Labour government possesses an immense propensity for patron-client relations. In the name of votes - which are all a political party can be counted on to take into account - it has handed out job after permit after wage increase, on industrial scales. Labour’s image is one of approachability: it cares for its clients and listens to them well.

To blame Labour for betraying its 2013 promises is to miss the woods for the trees. ‘Bread and games’ is a winning strategic decision precisely because people love the dough. It is at its most unashamedly transparent when promising free MATSEC examinations the night of the 2017 election. It is at its subtlest when, after eight years, one receives word of forty-thousand new apartments.

At the soul of the Labour Party is a façade of spiritual tenure over Malteseness. The evidently Anglophone inclinations of one who was to be “out the next day,” who stumbles over himself to speak the native tongue, are very much “fit for purpose” as long as the Party proclaims national pride in front of the outsider, even as it coaxes him onto its land.

Such inconsistencies are no outward sins to the masses, who are shocked to learn that other parties are not as on-the-nose proud.

It is neither fruitful nor instructive to dismiss this successful strategy as an undemocratic pact between crude bogans and godless opportunists, as if one could decide when the people choose correctly and when they do not. It is precisely democracy operating at its primordial fundamentals: ‘Give the people what they want...as long as one obeys this little logistical rule’.

There are other explanations for the improbable distance between Malta’s Parties despite Panama, despite Daphne Caruana Galizia, despite Electrogas: economy; sleek electoral marketing; civil rights policies. But it is this pact, rubber-stamped by majoritarian consent, and unchanged by ‘continuity PM’ Robert Abela, that ought to be celebrated by Labour.

Continuity candidate Robert Abela

Which will not happen. To do so explicitly would be to forgo the formal recognition of ‘European liberal democracy’ for its vulgate. It would be nice if everyone else, being as we are unbound by the trappings of office, noticed our relative freedom to point it out.

Benevolently, of course.

Vulgar democracy, which is still democracy insofar as it degenerates into an oligarchy, remains unbound by accountability and the Rule of Law. The disinterested and impartial bureaucratic machine, which for decades has been seen as a requisite of Weberian liberal Modernity, appears only where the Maltese State discourages non-clients - that is to say, non-voters. This is not unique to Labour, though it is uniquely efficient at it.

It is of note to remember that this agreement - this pact, which by definition denotes an interdependence, can only exist as long as people seek their client status from the government. The Nationalist Party, which with European accession won the cultural battle but not the war, would see the supranational régime it invited in 2004 continue its antagonism towards the ‘old ways.’ However, to do so would perpetuate an unresolved struggle for the identity of the Islands: whether to embrace Modernity or move on, at the risk of losing who we are along the way.

So far, and despite everything else having been modernised, Labour’s electoral pact with the people prevails. But it is a secret pact. Bereft of formal legitimacy, it venerates Janus: the Labour Party’s new, two-faced god.

Got a strong opinion? Send it to us on hello@sidestreetmalta.com to feature.

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