One week to go and Labour gets a new leader. Then Joseph Muscat’s Farewell Tour comes to a stop. Probably. Well, maybe just a few more tearful hugs before a really massive crowd.
For those of you asking whether Muscat takes us for fools: No, it’s clear Muscat no longer bothers to disguise what he’s up to in his last days in office.
He knows his hugely expensive weekend trip to Dubai makes no sense as a holiday. He knows we know he could have spent a luxury weekend in Paris (or Switzerland, if they’d let him in) and saved quality time and money, which could have been spent sampling vintages other than Petrus.
He doesn’t take Labour delegates for fools, either. He should know. His electoral victories never earned him carte blanche within the Party. He had to dismantle elective offices, like that of Secretary General, and replace them with ones like that of CEO, to be filled with loyalists by appointment.
The delegates never took his lead to appoint a known favourite to a deputy leadership post. The exceptions prove the rule. Louis Grech was a last-minute sole contender during a general election campaign. For Konrad Mizzi to be elected, other contenders were pressured into not contesting, and delegates had to be instructed to turn up and vote.
Chris Fearne became deputy leader despite Muscat favouring Helena Dalli and Edward Scicluna over him. From 2008, the delegates have always behaved as though they believed Muscat needed a counter-weight.
So what’s with the never-ending farewell tour? The clue lies in asking why it’s been fragmented into many small town and village meetings. Why not a single massive rally?
One reason is, of course, that Muscat did attempt to have a massive counter-rally to the protests but was, it seems, over-ruled by senior Labour politicians. It would have risked raising the political temperature to dangerous levels. But the small, frequent meetings, spread across the country, suit Muscat quite well.
Small town-based meetings disguise numbers. We have enough experience with mass meetings to be able to tell if a turn-out is poor, even if numbering in several thousands. But each town has its own particularity. The spaces chosen can amplify the size of a crowd.
Many meetings mean valuable repetition. The Labour media can broadcast every meeting in loving detail. Support for Muscat becomes headline news repeatedly. Every time it’s reported, it’s amplified. That news item stands as counter-weight to every protest meeting.
Such meetings (like protest rallies) are intense, music- and chant-laden affairs. They do not just express existing feelings. They build them up, give a shared focus, develop solidarity. The rush of emotions – often conflicting ones of sadness, love and anger – are simplified into an overwhelming one of loyalty. Confusion becomes clarity and certainty.
One function of these meetings is to provide Muscat with an insurance policy. The “demonstration” of his street popularity is a warning to authorities.
To the police, some of whom may themselves feel conflicted: Beware of whom you’re taking on.
To the candidates for succession: Do not think you can afford to run a leadership campaign based on hostility to me, Joseph Muscat. You must embrace me, literally, to entertain the chance of winning.
To the eventual successor: Do not think you can afford to hunt me down after you’re ensconced in my seat. After all these meetings – the emotions, the embraces, the pledges – you will plunge the Party into turmoil if you lift a finger in my direction.
The second function of these meetings is to put the focus on “Labour unity”. The focus is not Muscat on his own. It’s the leader and candidates embraced together. That focus means that action against Muscat, even in the post-Muscat scenario, comes to mean action against Labour.
It would mean ruining all the efforts at unity that came before. Not just during this leadership campaign. But also during those long years in the wilderness in the Alfred Sant years, the post-1998 bitterness, and the post-2008 efforts put in by Muscat himself.
This long farewell tour has disguised Muscat’s skin-saving machinations in the language of solidarity. It’s a language that privileges expressiveness, not argument. In these meetings, there is no place for dissent. Labour dissenters’ only choice is to stay away.
For many dissenters, silence or mutterings are the only options. They have few ways of expressing dissent that seems loyal. Dissent looks like it keeps healing from taking place, and victories from resuming.
So there you have it. A Farewell Tour that restricts the options of the successor, shapes the language of loyalty, and makes silence seem preferable to internal critics.
Did Muscat do it because he takes his party members for fools? Quite the reverse. He did it because he knows most of them are not.