'Never tell me the odds'...

Once again, it is not exactly an easy outcome to accurately predict – there are, after all, major ‘cost-benefit’ considerations either way – but you can already see that the choice, in itself, no longer rests on the ‘preferability’ of one particular candidate over another

You might recognise that as a line from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’: the second film in the original Star Wars trilogy (and, in my humble opinion, easily the best instalment of the entire franchise).

It is spoken by Han Solo, after C3PO informs him that (all together, now):

“Sir! The possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!”

Do I need to continue? Even if you haven’t watched the film, you will surely guess that Han Solo not only ‘successfully’ (quite easily, in fact) navigates that asteroid field, despite such overwhelming odds… but he also goes on to survive being frozen in carbonite (R2D2 estimates the chances at 750-1), and by the end of the trilogy he also single-handedly overthrows the combined might of the entire Galactic Empire, armed only with his trusty blaster-pistol (OK, OK, maybe the Ewoks did help a little. And so did the ‘Walking Carpet’. But you know what I mean…)

Seriously, folks: what are the odds of even the least of those things actually happening in real life? I’d say: about as remote and unlikely as that ‘other galaxy, long, long ago’.

But in the Star Wars universe? Totally different scenario. In this context, the chances of ‘successfully navigating an asteroid field’ have to be measured against another, very different set of statistical probabilities.

What are the chances that George Lucas would create a movie franchise in which the most charismatic protagonist by far – the ‘lovable scoundrel’ we’ve all been rooting for from the very beginning, no less – gets himself suddenly (and inexplicably) killed less than halfway through the second film? And in the most boring, mundane way imaginable, too: by simply crashing the Millennium Falcon headlong into a rock?

And even then: what are the chances that the resulting film would go on to spawn one of the most enduring, successful and beloved movie franchises of all time…?

Never mind ‘3,720 to 1’. The odds of such a thing happening would be too astronomical for even C3PO to ever compute. As Yoda himself might put it: ‘Not even possible, it is…’

So why even bring it up at all, you might be asking? Let’s just say that, if you take the above scenario only as a possible model for the calculation of ‘odds’ in general – you know, the sort of calculation that bookies and online betting agencies engage with on a daily basis – you will realise that it also applies to pretty much every other statistical probability you care to name.

There is always a superficial mathematical operation at work – represented here by C3PO’s ‘3,720-1’ prediction – but there will always be a wider context that, when also factored into the math, might give a very different final result.

In this case, the external factor is the 100% certainty we all instinctively feel, when watching the film for the first time, that: yes, of course Han Solo will ‘successfully navigate the asteroid field’; just as he’ll also kill all the bad guys, save the entire Universe from destruction, and ‘get the girl’ in end. It is, after all, just another action movie…

In other scenarios, it might be something considerably different; and my guess is that in ALL real-life scenarios, without exception, the variation in the final result will be nowhere near as predictable as it is in the ‘Star Wars’ model.

But still: it will always be there. And just to prove this little hypothesis of mine, I am now going to apply it to another set of odds: those of Adrian Delia actually beating Bernard Kenobi… I mean, Grech…. in the ongoing Nationalist Party leadership light-sabre duel, now set to take place on October 3.

Luckily, someone has already calculated those odds for us (and boy, must Adrian Delia be praying that they are about as accurate as C3PO’s, above). I have to stress that this was over two weeks ago – i.e., before Bernard Grech’s ‘unpaid taxes’ revelations, which may have tilted the balance slightly – but around the end of last month, a local online betting site was offering 1.1 odds on Bernard Grech… and 6.0 odds on Adrian Delia.

As betting odds go: that’s pretty darn overwhelming. The way it was reported at the time: “if you bet €1 on Grech winning, you’ll only get €1.10 in return. In comparison, should Delia win, you’ll be getting €6 in return, clear proof of the level of confidence currently held by the online bookmakers.”

Then again, however: that’s just the surface-level calculation… and we don’t need to look very far to see what sort of factors it was based on, either.

Just a couple of weeks earlier – i.e., before Grech even announced his candidacy – a MaltaToday poll had revealed that: “Bernard Grech enjoys the highest trust level among Nationalist Party members and is considered the person best suited to bring about unity”… having achieved a high score of 63.1%, compared to Delia’s meagre 23.3%.

Much the same results were reflected in all initial polls and surveys after the candidates were announced; and I imagine that the betting agency itself would have conducted a little research of its own (just as it is probably revising its calculations even now, on the basis on each new development).

But… how much do we really know about the wider context? What other factors might be underpinning this particular calculation?

For starters, all those ‘surveys and polls’ I just mentioned – including our own – don’t actually count for much, when you consider that the choice itself will not be made by the wider electorate as a whole… or even just the 130,000 who voted PN at the last election… but by the party’s paid-up members: a much smaller coterie of around 22,000 at the last count.

And with some exceptions – such as the estimated 600 new members who have enrolled since Bernard Grech entered the race – they are roughly the same people who originally elected Adrian Delia as PN leader, only three short years ago.

From their perspective, then, the calculation can already be seen to be slightly different than for anyone else. This is the second time in quick succession that the ‘tesserati’ are being called upon to choose a new leader; and while the circumstances have indeed changed slightly since 2017… in some respects they are still exactly the same.

Three years ago, they chose Adrian Delia on the strength of a promise to (in his own words) “deliver the party from an establishment which had hijacked it”; and which, in addition, was “responsible for the humiliating defeats of 2013 and 2017” (not to mention MEP elections, local council elections, and all the rest…)

And today, the same people they themselves rejected in favour of Adrian Delia in 2017, are once again calling upon them to reconsider that decision: or (as Delia’s supporters would no doubt see it) to be given the opportunity to ‘hijack’ the PN once more, and once again be responsible for another string of electoral defeats in future…

Admittedly, it’s not clear what percentage of those 20,000 would actually see it that way; but that, ultimately, is what will inform their final decision, one way or the other, on October 3.

And it is a very far cry from the sort of electoral calculation that ordinary voters make, when deciding whether they themselves prefer Bernard Grech to Adrian Delia, or vice versa… or, for that matter, when voting in an election, or responding to a survey questionnaire.

Besides: this particular leadership election is arguably unique in recent PN history, in the sense that the party knows from beforehand that it stands to lose at least a little support, no matter which of those two candidates they elect.

Here, the actual calculation may seem slightly more straightforward: those same polls indicate quite clearly that more Nationalists would be disillusioned by an Adrian Delia win, than by Bernard Grech. So even if the precise extent of the fall-out may be hard to predict, in exact percentages… the tesserati will surely be aware that Bernard Grech represents the less immediately ‘costly’ (in electoral terms) of the two options.

But that only brings me to another difference concerning this particular leadership election: actually, two.

The first is that it follows on the heels of an all-out ‘civil war’ between the pro- and anti-Delia factions, that has already completely eviscerated the Nationalist Party… and which has now spiralled far beyond any realistic hope of future ‘reconciliation’.

Secondly – and for much the same reason – the tesserati also know from beforehand that, regardless of their own choice today, the Nationalist Party is virtually guaranteed to go on to lose the next general election, any time it is called in the next two years (Note: Bernard Grech seemed to admit this himself, only yesterday).

This also implies that the real choice facing those 20,000 tesserati on October 3 is not so much between Adrian Delia and Bernard Grech, as two rival pretenders to the throne… but rather, a question of which of these two utterly irreconcilable factions the Nationalist Party would prefer to get rid of, once and for all, now that it have finally been given the chance.

Once again, it is not exactly an easy outcome to accurately predict – there are, after all, major ‘cost-benefit’ considerations either way – but you can already see that the choice, in itself, no longer rests on the ‘preferability’ of one particular candidate over another.

It is now a question of endgame: which of the two warring armies will win the final battle, and claim all the spoils… which also means that, at a certain level, those 20,000 tesserati (or at least, the ones who have strong allegiance to either Delia or Grech) will also be voting on their own continued survival as ‘Nationalists’… not to mention, even more poignantly, as the true ‘owners’ of the Nationalist Party.

I need hardly add that that’s a totally different type of calculation altogether – almost from another galaxy, in fact – and something tells me that the odds, with hindsight of the final result, will turn out to be nowhere near as ‘overwhelming’ as so many people out there clearly seem to think.

But of course – like C3PO before me – I have been known to make mistakes, you know…