The November 23 issue of The Times (of London) Literary Supplement carried a review of Edwina Currie’s second volume of diaries from 1992-1997. Currie, readers will know, was a British Tory MP and minister who resigned over a salmonella scare in 1988 and eventually lost her seat in 1997.
The following caught my eye: “As her party slides towards defeat at Blair’s hands three years later, she remarks that the Labour leader was doing what might be called dog-whistle campaigning: sending a message to middle-class voters without using any words.
“Currie’s constituents in South Derbyshire can hear the sound and they like it. ‘A middle-class public schoolboy who might have been a Tory: if he can vote Labour, so can they. He’s one of them’”.
At first glance, Joseph Muscat’s politics seem more street-vendor than dog-whistle. His message to middle-class voters is one of many words; if anything, one might suggest the man doth protest too much. In any case, ours is no island of understatement.
Still, there are similarities. Muscat works with at least two definitions of ‘middle class’. The first is the creature of his public speeches and is rhetorical and largely vacant. It seems to include everyone who does not have champagne breakfasts and lobster teas.
I’m in it and so are you, unless you’re sitting in a private jet reading an ironed newspaper.
Muscat knows that such a definition is too broad to be targeted at anyone or anything and that makes it largely useless in terms of political strategy. Which is why he has something more specific in mind, namely a much narrower middle class that overwhelmingly has voted Nationalist for the past 35 years or so. It also deeply mistrusts Labour.
His street vendor repertoire is intended for the first type, his dog whistles for the second. It is the second, or at least some of it, he really needs in order to win.
Take this quote from his speech last Sunday: “I have said before, I come from a (politically) mixed family, so tell me, how could I ever take such actions against my own family? You may not agree with us but you can still work with us.”
The dog whistle is as follows: “I may be Labour leader but I’m no laburist. At least not by (pure) lineage which is what matters really. The reason I can be trusted is that I’m essentially one of you who happens to have found a place in the Labour Party. That also shows I’m a rational and pragmatic person you can do business with”.
The last bit is important. It shows Muscat posturing (and that’s not to imply he’s cynical – politics and posturing are inseparable twins) as an individual who is capable of making a rational choice between two inheritances rather than one who’s stuck with a single one from birth.
His point is not banal, even though a caveat is in order. I don’t think that political inheritances and rational thought are necessarily opposed. Most people I know vote as their parents do but that doesn’t mean they’re lacking a mind. On the contrary they will have worked out why their party is really the better option, and they will also be self-critical in private.
What inheritance does is furnish one with a space within which rational thinking can happen, and beyond which it rarely does. But that’s a complicated argument which requires separate treatment.
It would be a fascinating exercise to look into Muscat’s childhood and the dynamics of his family life. The reason why he turned out Labour is in those processes rather than in some lucid moment of choice. Incidentally that applies to all of us who come from ‘mixed’ families, not just to him.
No matter. His posturing works regardless and that’s because rational choice and political inheritance are in fact opposed in the popular imagination. One of the reasons why Evarist Bartolo has something of a reputation for being clever is that he comes from a Nationalist family, by his own well-trodden account.
Muscat’s own genealogy means he’s a step ahead. On the one hand, he can trace it back to Mintoff, both as Labour leader and as the grandson of a mintoffjana who held his hand at mass meetings. But he can also be someone who might easily have been a Nationalist.
I’d like to think I haven’t had too much to drink, and that these nuances will matter really a lot on March 9. Much as they worked for Tony Blair in 1997.
Beyond Muscat, it helps that Anġlu Farrugia is ‘still relevant’ and very much out of the way, for two reasons. First, and I’m not trying to be unkind here, it’s not clear to me that Farrugia had a single useful political attribute. Bumbling and inarticulate, he really didn’t seem to know anything, in any field whatsoever. That, rather than Simon Busuttil’s star qualities, explains why Busuttil ran circles around him in last week’s debate.
Second, Farrugia was the wrong person for Muscat’s project. The type of ‘middle class’ Muscat is trying to attract will never happily digest a party whose deputy leader (the position is important – there are all manner of semi-literates in the PN) cannot pronounce ‘task force’ in decent Maltese-English. For all his ‘irġulija’ and such, Farrugia had come to resemble a scarecrow planted bang in the middle of Muscat’s field.
His departure may have cost Labour some spare ratings change but it will be forgotten by March 9. The timing is excellent as are the prospects of Farrugia’s summary replacement. As I write, Louis Grech has just submitted his nomination and the papers have it that Edward Scicluna is also interested. My money is on Grech but both are eminently presentable people with solid CVs and connections in the type of circles Muscat is after.
What about the other deputy? My opinion is that while Toni Abela may not have Louis Grech’s early-Bond manner or Scicluna’s scholarly method, he doesn’t hurt. Certainly he can be pretty sharp with words, and he also has a major redeeming chapter from the 1980s in his biography. Perhaps most importantly, his sense of humour makes him as scary to Joseph’s converts as a pair of Winnie the Pooh bedroom slippers.
The upshot is that Labour will be going to the general election with a happy threesome at the helm: a rational leader of mixed blood, a first deputy who wouldn’t look out of place at an Edwardian tea party, and a second who would be good company at any party. I’d say Simon Busuttil’s honeymoon is over.