Tuesday 16 October 2018

Time to rediscover the roots of this ‘workers’ party’

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

The Labour party has come a long way from being virtually unelectable to now being unstoppable (thanks to an Opposition which has self-destructed for a variety of reasons).

It was clear that there was a need for the Labour party to go back to the drawing board when it kept losing one election after the other. In fact, it has successfully managed to re-invent itself into this new, improved version because there were many things which needed to be changed to make it more palatable to the moderate voter, and all these things worked.

It was not just the superficial changes such as the logo but the general image of the ‘type’ of person the PL was trying to attract which saw a complete overhaul. We do not need to jokingly ask whether everyone ‘got the memo’ because, in this case, the whole entourage of potential candidates definitely did. Take a look at the mostly young, sleek, sharply dressed hopefuls and compare and contrast them with a photo of previous Labour candidates and you will understand what I mean. It is clear that the present Government is focussing mostly on youth (although that has its own pitfalls, of course). The Muscat administration itself is also a reflection of this, with only a handful of people being over ‘a certain age’. During mass meetings, the young people chosen to sit behind the Prime Minister are carefully chosen, attractive, well-groomed – nothing is left to chance.

Let me hasten to add that there is nothing inherently wrong with this, because how one presents one’s self is important as it implies that there has been careful thought behind every single detail which, whether we like it or not, translates itself into a political party being taken seriously. The take-me-as-I-am disheveled look does not go down very well these days. It is also a fact that when we see a group of people or a person speaking in front of us, before we even register what they are saying, the first thing our mind latches on to is how they look and how they are dressed. So when it comes to the image of the PL today, generally speaking, it gets full marks. Many middle-class people find themselves comfortable identifying themselves with it, which was frankly almost unthinkable before Muscat came along.

But politics is made up of much more than what appears on the outside. Being image conscious is all very well, but where the Labour party has really changed goes much deeper than that, and not all of it is flattering. Whatever happened to the ‘workers’ party? You know, the one which always stood up for the little guy, which fought against injustice, which made sure that everyone had a fighting chance by providing welfare schemes intended to give a helping hand to those who needed just a push to make it up the social ladder? Some will say that THAT Labour party died out with Mintoff, and to a certain extent they are correct.

Can you imagine doling out cheap plots of land today to those who cannot afford their own home? Granted, that scheme inevitably ended up being riddled with corruption, but there are many people my age who today have large terraced houses, even though they were on an average wage, precisely because of this scheme. Others were allocated a ‘flat tal-gvern’: social housing which provided a roof over their heads and alleviated their costs as they raised their families.

In her vivid account of Mintoff after he was admitted to hospital back in 2010, published in Malta Today, Carmen Sammut gave some examples of why he was revered by manual workers such as her own father:

“Mintoff became his hero when he reduced the size of the Maltese stone so that its weight  became bearable for construction workers. Dad spent his days climbing ladders carrying heavy stones and this decision was a big relief. He is grateful for it to date.
Mum was converted when Mintoff took measures to protect workers’ rights whereby my dad’s contractor had to honour his wage obligations even on those days when heavy rain disrupted their effort.
Even my maternal grandparents finally became Mintoff supporters when he introduced pensions and freed them from their anxieties on how they were going to survive on meagre life savings.”

She goes on to describe how she, like many of us of that generation, became critical of Mintoff’s eventual hardline policies, the ugly turn the country took because of the political violence he was unable to rein in, and the public’s resentment against too much state control. Yet for the older generation who saw the quality of their life changing dramatically because of the social changes he made for the working class, especially in the early years, all was forgiven and to this day, many will never allow a whisper of criticism against him.

I often wonder what Mintoff would say about some of Labour’s policies today and how the party seems to have completely discarded its very roots. A Labour party which backs down when threatened by employers over the introduction of new vacation leave rules which favour the worker. Four employer organisations said they would not attend meetings of the Employment Relations Board in protest at the new rules, so the Government has suspended the legal notices for discussions to take place. While I am all for consensus, it seems to me that it is always the employee who gets the short end of the stick in these matters. I am continuously reading about people being underpaid and exploited, having their vacation leave cancelled at the last minute and even losing their jobs because some employers treat their staff like expendable ‘things’.

The out-of-control rental market, which has created one of the country’s most pressing social problems, is another matter which is diametrically in conflict with my idea of what the ethos of a Labour Government should be. The right to affordable, decent housing is a basic human right and no amount of scaremongering about state interference will dissuade me from my belief that in this sector, yes, a measure of control is needed. It is unheard of to have landlords doing what they like in a completely unregulated market.

It is also obvious that developers and construction magnates are basically the ones who are really running the country, as they have the Government firmly in their grip and probably in their debt. I’m now at the point where part of me hopes something goes bust so that the whole industry collapses like a house of cards. It will probably mean rows and rows of half-finished apartment buildings left unused, and people losing money and jobs, but I think something drastic has to happen for this building frenzy and environmental destruction to stop.

The Association of Catering Establishments has now also muscled in with big bully tactics and openly told the Gżira mayor that he should stick to controlling the traffic and that he was “attacking the livelihood of the entrepreneurs” because he criticized the fact that pavements were being overtaken by tables and chairs. More than 20 establishments between Manoel Island and the Ferries have now spread their business onto the pavement. Does the common citizen have any rights at all, Mr Government, or do we all have to prostrate ourselves on the altar of ‘business’?

The cherry on the cake this week is something we all have known about for years: social benefits’ abuse. It was revealed that the men being accused of murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia have been on social benefits since 2002, and are registered as unemployed, while living a lavish lifestyle with expensive cars and boats. Hands up anyone who is surprised.

For the truth is that, as much as the social welfare safety net created by Mintoff lifted a lot of people up who truly needed it, without the necessary checks and balances (or maybe because some have been slipped a brown envelope to turn a blind eye ), abuse is rampant. We have all seen people whose lifestyle absolutely does not match their supposed income, and wondered what we have been doing wrong all these years.

It is impossible to get a Government which will please everyone all of the time, but maybe it is about time this administration starts to rediscover its origins and roots, and stops pandering to the ones flashing all the cash. Remember us, the ordinary people? We are not a strong lobby like hunters or have the political and economic clout like the business class; most of us just want to live a quiet, peaceful life without cranes and pollution on our doorstep and tables and chairs on our pavements.

A life where we expect everyone to be treated equally, everyone to pay their taxes and every worker to get his due. Is that really too much to ask?

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