Wednesday 12 May 2021

Labour is still ahead in the polls, so why is it so touchy?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The above title basically sums up a question which I have been mulling over for a few weeks now.  Every time there is a Malta Today survey, there is clear evidence, time and again, that despite everything, the Labour Party still enjoys a comfortable lead.

Granted, the PN under Bernard Grech has made some inroads. It has gained back around 3000 voters and is now back to “its best results since 2017”, but as was quickly pointed out, this is not saying much given how badly the Nationalists were thrashed at the polls that year.  In fact, the results of this latest opinion poll dated 16th April, have forced many in the party to come forward and publicly admit through gritted teeth that it is clear they stand absolutely no chance of winning the next election.  There have been many attempts at analysing why and how come, especially in the face of so much damning evidence against the previous Muscat administration, but the upshot of it all is that, as things stand, Labour does not have much to worry about.  Unless there is some kind of miracle between now and the as yet undisclosed election date, the public pulse indicates that the PL will be re-elected, especially if the excellent vaccine roll-out means it can manage to get the economy going again. 

And yet, the knee jerk reactions of some of its politicians and its diehard supporters the minute there is even a whisper of criticism would make you think otherwise.  They are being so touchy and defensive you would think that the two parties are neck and neck, whereas the numbers tell a completely different story.  My only conclusion is that there is a segment within the party which expects (or even demands) complete and utter partisan loyalty and fulsome praise at all times, especially in that most public of spheres – social media, and more specifically, Facebook.

Unlike the party radio and TV stations which are under tight control because producers can pick and choose not only who to invite on their shows but also how to manipulate the direction of the discourse (and cut off anyone who is not singing their tune), the beauty of social media is that it is completely unfettered.  FB goes even one step further than online news portals and blogs which are under the thumb of moderators who can choose which comments to upload, because it is a wide open sprawling democracy where every opinion can be expressed, from the most eloquent, erudite arguments to the most badly spelled, almost incoherent scribblings of anyone with access to a wifi connection.  The most control one can have is to block someone who annoys you, or perhaps report them for some reason and have FB suspend them temporarily, although the latter action sometimes only serves to make the person come back with renewed vigour. 

Faced by this uncontrollable mass of people who have the audacity to be out there, online, saying whatever they like, pointing out  gaffes, mocking stupidities, and calling out inconsistencies and hypocrisy, I have noticed that many in the political sphere are becoming rather frazzled by this situation. They don’t like this. No, no this is not what the electorate is there for (they think to themselves); the electorate is there to be grateful, to be patted on the head like obedient pets, to reply on cue every time they see a photo of a “renovated open space” with the phrase, “oooh xi ġmiel”.  

We are supposed to respond like Pavlov’s dogs and salivate with happiness to be “given” parks (which are not really parks) and to swoon at the sight of a new carpark.   

For example, I noticed particular umbrage was taken last week when I criticised the live transmission of the inauguration of the Marsa project, which was a classic example of the touchiness which is prevailing.  What I neglected to mention is that only third world, developing countries actually spend precious airtime on the inauguration of similar projects or dedicate stories on the evening news on the national station any time a broken pavement is fixed. Is that really how we perceive ourselves, and how we wish to be perceived?  

But those who got upset were only concerned with scolding me because “at least Labour is finishing its projects not like the PN, and where were you, blah blah blah”.   Well google search is your friend, in case any reader wishes to look up my articles pre-2013…or as it is also known, in the year B.P.M (before Prosit Ministru).

This inability to take the slightest criticism on the chin just underlines what is starting to seem like an inferiority complex by Labour politicians and their eager beaver cheerleaders on FB.  More precisely, it points to a siege mentality, and the last time I saw that kind of behaviour was in the dying days of the Gonzi administration. In case you forgot, from inception, that Government was already hampered by a very slim majority, 1,500 votes to be exact, and it spent its entire term constantly on the defensive, with PN apologists lashing out at any one who dared criticise.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the famous saying goes.  

The difference is that the writing was on the wall for that administration and they could see they were headed towards a catastrophe, especially after the divorce referendum, which Gonzi’s conservative Government and the Church tried so desperately to squash, was won by the Yes vote.  So the touchiness, the defensiveness, the siege mentality, the attack on anyone who was not pro-PN was, in retrospect, understandable, because the party knew its days were numbered.  

But in this case, with Labour still leading in the polls (despite everything which should point to the contrary), the nervous reactions make me wonder. Do they know something we don’t? Maybe they see this as just the beginning of a snowballing wave of discontent which will influence others, chipping away at their majority?  Or are they afraid that social media is actually reflecting the true feelings of voters, including a large chunk of former PL voters who have ceased to be impressed by all the glitz, and now look cynically at Labour as a party they no longer recognise?  

Whatever the reason, it is clear that comments on FB which are not fawning in adulation are being met with a heightened sense of irritation. Simmering beneath the finger-pointing at all those who criticise, accusing them of being Nationalists who are still burning with anger and humiliation at the last crushing defeat, one can detect a mounting intolerance. Because you know, if you criticise Labour you must be PN; we have danced this particular boring dance before. 

Meanwhile, in lieu of any better way to deal with the hotheads, many have turned to using lemon emojis, and “40k” themselves as ironic banter.  At least it’s an amusing way to defuse the tension and it serves its purpose of confusing those who don’t get the joke. 

This is why we need grown ups in Parliament 

Speaking of jokes, let us turn to a few of our male politicians who are now making it just too easy for satirists. Frankly, at this point, the memes are writing themselves. 

Ian Borg, well, what is there left to say?  The more he talks the more it’s a case of ‘open mouth, insert foot’.  The Infrastructure Minister first tells the press that those who are criticising the newly inaugurated ‘open space’ in Dingli are just people who don’t like him personally. I guess he has failed to understand that taxpayers are not happy with him spending €600,000 on more bland concrete and parking spaces.  Replying to the criticism by fitness enthusiasts who described the outdoor gym equipment as being amateur, he decided that a good response would be: “if you are serious about going to a gym, pay a gym membership”.  Apart from the tactless flippancy of this remark, it is not exactly the brightest thing to say when gyms are all still closed. 

Then there was the silly spat which Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia engaged in after the satirical website Bis-serjeta’ mentioned his mother, who regularly comments on his posts. Those who followed the exchanges on Twitter looked on in disbelief, and it went viral. Let’s just say that Farrugia sounded like a petulant 12-year-old taunting someone in a schoolyard fight (made worse when he exposed the name of the person behind the site) rather than an MP who forms part of the Cabinet running the country. He slightly redeemed himself the next day by apologising for his over reaction but the lasting impression is of someone who lacks maturity. 

And to round off the week we had Economy Minister Silvio Schembri uploading a photo on FB, saying that his wife was making him “work overtime” in the kitchen.  Leaving aside the underlying sexism of that caption, this is the recurring problem with MPs who are too young for their office: they keep forgetting their role and think they can behave like any other millennials who are overly absorbed with their social media presence. 

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