Floating over the canyon
Trying to find ‘the message’ of the general election is like trying to find the message in an earthquake. Last Sunday Malta woke up, looked out the window and saw the Grand Canyon just beyond its doorstep.
Can one speak of ‘messages’ when the result seems to express more than any single person meant or can ever say? Besides those whooping with joy and those others numb and gutted, I’ve also come across Labour voters who were shell-shocked and dejected although unrepentant, as well as Nationalist voters full of black humour.
The tsunami hit the PN hardest of course but the waters rose and engulfed several senior Labour MPs. Around half of the previous Parliament’s MPs have disappeared, either through retirement or loss of seat. Some of those who survived barely made it. The Prime Minister is right to say the election should be sobering for the whole political class.
It’s not just the landscape that has changed. It’s also how we will read it from now on. Local council election results will be less easy to dismiss. Governments’ reliance on economic performance alone will seem hazardous.
However, it’s not as though what and how it happened is unfathomable. Take the 37,000-vote margin of victory. It obviously shouldn’t be rationalised away. The PN’s share of the vote is down to what it last was 51 years ago, two years before independence and with five political parties in Parliament.
But, in terms of vote shifts, the gap between this year’s result and the four previous elections is not as great as the winning margin might lead one to think. There have been massive but generally ignored electorally seismic tremors for the past 17 years.
With rather fewer voters than there are today – and with rather more voters for whom the 1980s were a vivid disturbing memory – the 1996 election saw a shift of (depending on whether one counts only the winner’s net gains or includes other factors) some 20,000 to 24,000 votes. The 1998 election turned on a shift of some 21,000 to 28,000 votes. The 2003 and 2008 elections saw the PN win thanks to voters who continued to consider themselves true Labourites.
The massiveness of each of these shifts was disguised because the political parties never began the race at par. This time they did, since the 2008 result was a virtual dead heat, and so it’s possible to see the deep chasm that such shifts open up.
I repeat: the point is not to rationalise this election’s result away but rather to notice what was ignored in previous ones. Alfred Sant may have left Labour with largely the same segment of the vote it had 16 years earlier when he took over. But while the numbers suggest a settled balance of power between the two main parties, they were actually the result of a huge chunk of very unstable and increasingly provisional voting preferences.
Such numbers give a ballpark figure for the cliché that there is an increasing number of floating voters. But they do more than that.
It would be an odd conclusion for the PN to take comfort in such figures. Because the most salient aspect of these numbers isn’t that if the numbers have been swinging strongly for five elections, then maybe, who knows, they can swing again at the next. The real story is how, over the past five years, the PN misread, or failed to act, on their wider meaning.
Floating voters form a very loose category of people, who are united only by the fact that they have switched vote, or are disposed to switch, from one election to the next. They don’t necessarily think harder or better than the non-floaters. They range from people motivated by the most petty of reasons to the most grave, the most personal to the most selfless.
So, if the number of floaters is increasing, it’s not because people are necessarily becoming more thoughtful. It’s because personal interests – for reasons to do with the familiar list of social, economic and political changes – have become more individualised, less tied to the fate of the entire family (particularly in the case of youth, since parents and grandparents are more likely to live vicariously in the fates of the younger generation). And it’s because the consequences of switching vote have become, for many people, less direct and immediate.
These underlying changes affect not just the vote but the entire political attitude. An individualised society is bound to be more liberal (in the broad sense) because it becomes more difficult to recognise why any group identity should lay any long-term claim on individuals. It’s no coincidence that social liberalism has been such a significant motif of the last general election.
Joseph Muscat wised up to it early and systematically sought to replace the PN/PL polarity, which for an increasing number of people made less and less sense, with the liberal/conservative divide, which seemed to make more sense out of the structure of people’s lives.
It is, of course, too simple. The old polarity lives on. In his actions, if not his rhetoric, Muscat has recognised that. Having become sure he had won over significant personal support from the political centre, he sought to be elected in two traditional ‘Mintoffian’ electoral districts. Within his own party, he rules not from the centre but from both poles.