This piece has been written while we know it’s a Labour landslide but not the actual size of the majority, let alone the details that are needed for a proper interpretation of the result.
How we interpret the Labour landslide will shape its consequences. The struggle over the meaning is part of the contest. The dominant interpretation will end up selecting the kind of Opposition we get. It will determine Robert Abela’s freedom of action.
Until the necessary details come in, here are five guidelines to keep in mind as everyone puts in their two cents’ worth. They will help you focus on the signal and ignore the noise.
1 – Be attentive to, but sceptical about, all immediate interpretations. As a rule, they will not be detached from the result but a continuation of the contest — between Parties and within each of them.
Labour has won by a landslide but its aim was never just to win. It was to wipe out, or at least cripple, the Opposition — by demoralising it beyond repair and setting in motion a downward spiral of recriminations.
A mistaken interpretation of the result will see the Nationalist Party (PN) embark on a mistaken strategy of recovery, as it did in 2017. Failing to take proper stock plagued the Party for the rest of the legislature.
2 – Be sceptical of quick criticism of the respective campaign strategies. Until the details are in — who made it to Parliament, who abstained, the respective swings in the various demographics — any criticism of either campaign is like film criticism based on a trailer.
3 – The campaign was asymmetric. Don’t take too seriously any commentary that assesses the result but doesn’t take the inequality of resources into consideration.
The PN fought this campaign bound by Queensberry rules, while Robert Abela fought it freestyle. No law or rule was too sacred to break — from campaign spending to corrupt practices to pressuring many would-be abstainers to vote in the final hours.
The result therefore represents the best Abela could do. He controlled public broadcasting and avoided interviews with independent journalists. The entire campaign was built around him, with Labour’s name literally marginalised on the billboards.
For the PN, however, the result represents just how much ground Bambi could hold against Godzilla. Yes, there are glaring mistakes and blunders that it committed; this Bambi needs rehabilitation therapy. But there still is a fundamental difference: for Abela, the result represents a likely ceiling; for the PN, a foundation to build on. (However, do not discount the Party’s ability to find a way of shaking this foundation).
4 – Interpreting the foundation and the ceiling requires us to go beyond the brute fact of the majority.
For example, this election saw an extra 13,000 voters since 2017, some of them 16-22-year-olds voting for the first time. My hunch is that Labour could expect to win around 60% of the new voters — an automatic advantage of circa 2500 votes. An assessment of Labour’s majority needs to factor in that gap.
Then there are the abstentions. Not all are created equally. Turnout on the second district, for example, is higher than the national average. But that’s a Labour stronghold where both Abela and Joseph Muscat campaigned. You’d expect turnout to be high and yet it’s still a historic low.
Abstentions on the 9th and 10th districts need to be read for what they mean for the PN. The Party had several candidates contesting who hail from outside the districts. There was a representation of all factions. It matters who was elected, of course; but it also matters whether the abstention rate indicates exasperation or disillusionment with all factions.
5 – A solid Labour victory doesn’t necessarily mean a solid majority for Abela. Who has been elected, and from which district, will give us a sense of the shape of things to come.
In 2013, for example, an important part of the story was that voters wiped out many veteran Labour MPs, together with the PN. A parliament of Labour newbies played some part in giving Joseph Muscat his dominance and Labour its youthful sheen.
This time, for example, a drama has been playing in the second district. The overwhelming Labour majority there came with a threefold split. There is Abela’s list, featuring his sister-in-law, Alison Zerafa Civelli, and two MPs he had coopted, Clyde Caruana and Oliver Scicluna. There are individual candidates, like Glenn Bedingfield and Chris Agius, who, seeing the Abela deluge coming their way, brought in Joseph Muscat to endorse them. And then there are candidates who are independent of either faction.
A sweep by Abela’s candidates in the district will strengthen him within Labour as a whole.
A mixed result will not necessarily mean a split Party, since Labour voters have often defied a leader’s preferences. But a result that leaves Abela depending on the support of MPs who are in debt to Muscat will leave Abela with less freedom of action than he would like if, or when, more corruption of the Muscat era is revealed.
These five guidelines leave a lot out. The PN has lost three elections in a row by a landslide: where is it consistently going wrong? Have Labour voters rewarded amoral behaviour or do the details show something different? Is there really a permanent Labour majority in the country or has Labour, despite its venality, managed to project itself as the Party of the aspiring classes?
Over the coming hours, days and weeks, there will be plenty to discuss as we learn more about the real signals, and learn to distinguish them from the noise.