An old adage has it that a rightwing politician who ‘borrows’ progressive ideas is smart, while a social democrat who takes a leaf out of the book of commonsense conservatism is a traitor.
Political parties are not pressure groups. Their aim is not to press government to make changes, but to be in government and make those changes.
I have been leader of a Labour party, the one in Malta, since 2008 and prime minister for the past two and a half years. History buffs would delight in drawing parallels between United Kingdom Labour and its offspring in the Mediterranean. From a drastic change in its attitude – from practically hostile to all-embracing – towards the European Union, to a near-miss in an election, complete with Sheffield rally-like images, that it should have won, to a landslide victory.
We are serving our first full term in office after practically 25 years of uninterruptedly sitting in opposition. During this quarter of a century we had grand ideas, some of which would really make any good socialist proud. But they were badly articulated and never seemed relevant to the working and middle classes. At the same time, as in all western democracies, our historic battles for workers’ rights, equality and pensions were being won. Nobody in their right senses, whether left or right, would think of questioning the right to health and safety at work, the need for a social protection system, or equality between sexes. Just like many other progressive forces that failed to renew themselves, we were a valiant army without a recognisable adversary, reminiscing about the past at worst or tilting at windmills at best. We essentially became a glorified pressure group.
Then we finally decided it was time to change. I went to our conference with a bold programme. We would be a pro-business, civil liberties-based, progressive movement for which Labour would be an instrument for government. The conference was brave, or desperate enough, to vote for a 34-year-old who was not even a member of parliament. I believe it was the hunger to be relevant once again, the eagerness to show that our values could be articulated to make sense to the Facebook society, and the willingness to connect to the silent majority, that transformed us. We not only went from a pressure group to an electable party, but also developed into a movement. Since then we have won a defining general election with the greatest margin in post-second world war politics, together with all European and local elections with convincing majorities.
The first crucial step was to show that Labour is pro-business. I always wondered why some people think it should not be so. The founding fathers of our party, and sister parties, called us Labour for a reason. It means ‘work’. Had they wanted it to be exclusively a party for one section of society, they would have settled for another name. Work is a social function that necessitates two sides: those who create the opportunity, and those who transform that opportunity into reality. Labour is the party of work, and thus it is the party of workers, business and the self-employed. Being pro-business is being pro-workers. That is why Labour should always be unapologetically pro-business.
In just over two years we have turned Malta into a laboratory of progressive ideas, delighting in doing things differently.
We joined forces with the private sector to modernise our energy sector, currently shifting from oil to gas, investing in alternative energy and interconnection. This is better for our environment and for our business and consumers, who have both benefitted from a 25 per cent efficiency-driven cut in bills.
We cut income tax for middle-class earners and made sure those on the minimum wage are not taxed.
We exempted young families from stamp duty on their first property.
We made Malta the first and only country in Europe, and, I suspect, worldwide, to provide universal free childcare to all working parents, a measure that unleashed the previously untapped potential of women in the labour force.
We strengthened our system of good schooling and no tuition fees for university students, also paying a stipend to encourage further education.
We cut benefits for those who refuse jobs or training, while introducing in-work benefits for those who aspire to do more.
In 2015, according to the European commission’s forecast, Malta, together with Ireland, will top Europe’s chart for economic growth. We translated that in a 5.5 per cent unemployment rate, the lowest ever recorded, and we are on our way to increasing minimum pensions.
And, just in case you were wondering, we have managed to reduce the deficit from 3.7 per cent to 2.1 per cent, and reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio too.
At the same time we have introduced civil unions on a par with marriage together with the right to apply for adoption, and what is described by global LGBTIQ advocacy groups as the world’s state-of-the-art legislation on gender identity, making Malta ‘a beacon of hope’.
Many might term this as Clintonite, Blairite or Schroderite.
I say it is commonsense progressive politics that these visionary leaders showed was possible, and that our small country is showing are still possible.
Joseph Muscat is prime minister of Malta and leader of the Maltese Labour party
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.