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'Vote Joseph, get Joseph'

"People who know both Alfred (Sant) and myself know we've always spoken our mind, and we haven't always been full of compliments for one another". Photo: Jason Borg

"People who know both Alfred (Sant) and myself know we've always spoken our mind, and we haven't always been full of compliments for one another". Photo: Jason Borg

Labour MEP Joseph Muscat believes he has what it takes to revamp the Labour Party to clinch victory in 2013. Interviewed by Herman Grech, he talks about his leadership bid, the age factor... and his unenviable reputation as Alfred Sant's 'poodle'.

Sitting in his office in a busy, polluted road in Paola, Joseph Muscat fiddles with his mobile phone and proudly displays an image of his five-month-old twin daughters.

"It was difficult, very difficult to decide," he muses, his eyes glued to the phone screen, "but I just couldn't ignore the many people who believe in me and asked me to contest the leadership post."

Despite his fresh paternal responsibilities, the 34-year-old MEP has decided to throw his hat into the ring for the top post within the Labour Party, which is set to be decided on June 5 following the resignation of Alfred Sant.

Considered by many as one of Labour's brightest sparks, especially after working for four years in the European Parliament, Dr Muscat admits he was surprised by the election result considering the positive feedback the party was receiving throughout the campaign.

However, he is somewhat reluctant to try to put his finger on the reason for defeat, preferring to wait for the outcome of a report commissioned by the Labour Party to analyse what went wrong on March 8.

"Labour's problem was not about image, but it probably boiled down to policies and the way they were put forward. Certain policies were not articulated well enough, especially given the fact that the party had been consulting with the public and different sectors for the past three years," he says.

Dr Muscat also believes the party should probe the way it failed to tackle some sectors of the electorate, like those living overseas, and the evident way the Nationalists had the upper hand in campaigning over the Internet.

"I think we put forward a very clear message on the need for change. But, on the other hand, we could not clearly explain, for example, how we intended to finance the pledge to reduce the surcharge by half," he says.

Asked whether he believed Labour's election campaign came across as too negative, Dr Muscat says the MLP had to ensure it was not perceived as a party with an axe to grind, but rather one that had achievers in its ranks.

"We need to look at people who are in need, but also tap those who started off from a working class background, who have achieved something in life, but who now feel like misfits within the Labour Party. We have to reach out to these people - and you don't do so by just being negative.

"If you look at policies, we didn't have much to offer to the middle class. While never abandoning our working class roots, we have to reach out to a wider electoral base."

Ultimately, political parties should not just pin their electoral fortunes on the five-week campaign, he insists.

Dr Muscat would not comment on whether Dr Sant had contributed to the party's third successive electoral defeat. He said that had Labour won the election, victory would have had many parents - defeat should likewise not single out any one person alone.

Does it mean that the deputy leaders should also assume responsibility?

"I believe statutorily they have no choice," he replies.

The MEP does not believe, either, that Dr Sant's decision to quit a day after the election result had left the MLP in limbo.

"I can see his point. If he remained in the driving seat he might have been accused of trying to influence the choice of a new leader. I don't see it as abandoning the party."

Dr Muscat is all too aware that he is often seen as one of Dr Sant's acolytes... he takes it one step further and chips in with a laugh: "don't forget some people even call me Dr Sant's poodle". He clearly takes it in his stride: "It's a free world. Whatever the case, I will prove myself through my actions."

Asked whether this perceived closeness with Dr Sant could actually work against his bid, he replies: "Everybody has a right to an opinion but I'm my own man. I managed to get elected into the European Parliament on my own steam. People who know both Alfred and myself know we've always spoken our mind, and we haven't always been full of compliments for one another.

"I want to be elected on my own steam and if people go for Joseph they will get Joseph. Vote Joseph, get Joseph, nobody else. The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

Dr Muscat says he does not rely on specific individuals to back his cause - he is offering his services to the party because he thinks it is time to have a young, pro-European, proactive leader, capable of keeping the grassroots together, while reaching out to new voters.

"People see me as a person they can work with. I have a 15-year project for the party and the country. During a maximum five years in opposition we will spend the first two years transforming the party. We want to make each citizen feel comfortable with voting Labour. That means changing the way we think, act, and look.

"In the third and fourth year, we will tell people what we want to do. Experience has shown us that telling the electorate that the Nationalists have lied and are not delivering is not enough. People want to know what we are doing."

The Labour Party has to map out a clear manifesto by the next election so that the electorate knows where it stands on all issues.

"I will be interested in setting the agenda, and not really bothered if we're copied. I look at some fundamental changes in our country so that we can turn it into a real European society. I see this not as a leadership race, but as a choice of vision."

Until June 5, does he see a proper campaign where the candidates debate the future of the party instead of singing the praises of the leader?

"I'm open to debates. I don't know the rules of the game so far. More than merely pointing out where we went wrong, I think people are interested in knowing what we will do differently. We don't need half-baked measures but a drastic change in the way we project ourselves, the way we think, and the way we appeal to people."

Unlike George Abela, who suggested that the contest should be decided by the paid-up members, and not merely by the delegates, Dr Muscat is clearly not making any requests about the way the leadership election should be held.

"I will contest the leadership election by whatever rules are decided by the party or the general conference. I'm not the sort of person who will only run the race if it's done under certain rules... and as a contender I don't think I should try to influence those rules in any way."

Nevertheless, when asked about the rumours that there is already a lobby against Dr Abela - and the other anticipated frontrunner in the leadership race Michael Falzon - he says he absolutely disagrees with any attempts to ostracise anyone.

"I will say it loud and clear - Joseph Muscat as leader of the Labour Party is an invitation for everybody to work together. Choosing Joseph does not mean excluding Michael or George. I want to be everyone's leader, not a leader of a faction. I don't want to spend the next five years watching my back but looking forward, convincing people that they can trust the Labour Party to govern this country."

He quickly denies claims that he is at loggerheads with Dr Falzon - on the contrary, he says, they have an excellent relationship.

Doesn't he think it would be good in the long run for the party to rid itself of the bad blood?

"That would be a democratic choice. One of the things I credit the Nationalist Party with is that after all the criticism levelled by (former PN president) Frank Portelli, they had the courage to go back to him and say 'let bygones be bygones'. They agreed to work together and deliver a Nationalist victory."

Rather than citing the names of individuals at the top, Dr Muscat said the party needs to inject a new mentality.

"I'm putting myself forward as leader of the party. I don't want to impose names or faces on the party. I am comfortable working with anyone. Whoever wins or loses must be prepared to toe the same line. This does not mean that I intend to bar any criticism but I think we should now start pulling the same rope. I see myself working in a team with all sorts of people - those who are already working in the party, others who have left, even people who never identified themselves with Labour."

Will there be space for Dr Sant?

"There will be space for everyone. There will be space for George Abela, Alfred Mifsud, Lino Spiteri, Alfred Sant... everyone." Nevertheless, Dr Muscat says he believes Dr Sant would not want any role in the party.

Since he is not an elected member of the Maltese parliament, Dr Muscat would have to be co-opted, but he is quick to point out that this should not pose a problem in any way. It is unclear whether Dr Sant himself would be the one to cede his seat in parliament if the MEP is elected.

Describing him as one of the father figures of the party, Dr Muscat has no qualms in admitting that he regularly turns to former Labour deputy leader George Vella for advice. Likewise, he says he has huge respect for each person named so far in the leadership race.

It is up to the party conference to decide who to choose for the deputy leader's post, and he says he is willing to take on board those who fail in their bid for the top post.

Does he have a particular preference for deputy leader?

"Everyone has his preference, but it would irresponsible of any leader who wants to have a united party to indicate or dictate what he wants. I'm easy and comfortable working with anyone the party chooses. I will make sure that the contenders in the leadership race are fully on board," he says, reluctant to comment on claims of a Joseph Muscat-Evarist Bartolo tandem.

But, he says: "It will be a pyrrhic victory just to win for the sake of leading the Labour Party. I'm interested in leading the Labour Party for its last term in opposition and then govern with a project. I look forward to being a Labour prime minister at 39."

While pledging his allegiance to Labour, even if he fails in his bid, Dr Muscat says the party should have the courage to do what the British Labour Party did back in 1994 (when Tony Blair became its leader) and the Conservatives a couple of years ago (when David Cameron seized the top post). Labour needs a leader who can manage to keep together the grassroots, the moderates, and the young vote. Keeping the same policies will lead the party nowhere.

The winner of the Outstanding Young Person of the Year 2006 award does not consider his age a handicap. He quickly points out that he has worked in the largest most democratic institution in the world - the European Parliament - where he is one of the youngest members and has the results to prove he has substance.

Labour "only" has 60 months to get its act together and convince people it can govern. Lawrence Gonzi has already spoken about tapping the aspirations of those who didn't vote PN, evidently showing that he is feeling the heat from the fact that he does not have an absolute majority, Dr Muscat says.

"I am not willing to waste time - we have to hit the ground running. I will change things drastically. Some things might not be liked, others will. If we don't change things we will remain a very strong 47 per cent minority."

Does he see himself in the mould of Dr Gonzi, whose charm and charisma has managed to even appeal to some Socialists?

"Well, as David Cameron once said, I think it won't hurt anybody to have a young, charismatic leader," he laughs. "I will not shy from any face-to-face confrontation with Gonzi. It will be about policies, personalities."

Given the proximity of the election result and in line with his promise of doing politics differently, Dr Muscat says that Dr Gonzi should give the opposition the right to appoint a speaker and a President of the Republic.

Still, despite the Nationalists' wafer-thin majority, Dr Muscat pledges that his party will not play dirty tricks in an attempt to derail the Government.

"We want to be respected and not taken for granted. We want to be part of the system as partners."

Does he have any regrets about his career so far and does he fear that a book on corruption he authored (which was the subject of its fair share of libel suits) might come back to haunt him?

"Regrets, I have a few, but then again, they are too few to mention," he replies.

Ultimately, Dr Muscat is well aware that his EU credentials could work in his favour - despite adopting a neutral stand on Europe following its 2003 election defeat, the MLP was still perceived by many as an anti-EU membership party.

Pointing out that the British Labour Party and the Greek Pasok had also revised their EU stand in the past, he accused the PN of irresponsibility for trying to give the impression that the MLP was an anti-EU party.

"We were very clear that we weren't trying to jeopardise EU membership. The issue is over and done with. We are a European party. We will be pro-European. With Joseph Muscat as leader, it's not talk. It's fact. I have worked in the European Parliament. The results I managed to obtain are evident. Do you recall the PN attacking me in the past months for speaking positively about the adoption of the euro, so with Joseph Muscat as leader, Labour would have crossed the Rubicon definitely."

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