Campaign strategy? What strategy?

The PN seemed to seriously think that attacking Joseph Muscat, on its own, would somehow magically translate into support for their own party

The Nationalist Party lost this election because it allowed itself to be hijacked by a tiny coterie of diehard supporters
The Nationalist Party lost this election because it allowed itself to be hijacked by a tiny coterie of diehard supporters

One of the most interesting aspects to emerge in the aftermath of the electoral car-crash we just went through is the overwhelming sense of denial on the losing side.

In truth, it was plainly visible long before the result was known. It’s not as though none of us could see a Labour victory steaming towards the screen like a locomotive. It was visible to all who cared to look... not out of any faculty of clairvoyance, but merely because all reliable independent polls had consistently pointed in this direction from day one. 

All independent surveys predicted a Labour victory of anywhere between 4,000 (lowest margin) and (opposite extreme) 55,000 votes. Not only did these statistics never really fluctuate; but Labour’s predicted lead actually rose towards the end of the campaign.

Paradoxically, the most seemingly unlikely of those predictions ended up being the closest to the final result. So how, exactly, did so many Nationalists seem to think they were cruising towards a victory? On what basis did these people seriously expect to win? (Note: I could have great fun today reminding certain people of their pre-electoral comments, but let’s forego that for now)

What interests me more is why so many people allowed themselves to be duped by their own political prejudices in the first place. Why would otherwise intelligent people permit their own sense of tribal political allegiance – a relic of the 1980s, if there ever was one – to get the upper hand over a clinical assessment of the facts at hand?

Even without the polls, there was all along a conspicuous lopsidedness in electioneering that could only spell out a Nationalist defeat (and please note I am not saying this merely with the benefit of hindsight; I said much the same thing throughout the campaign.. and can dig up all the quotes if required to). What should have been an election fought on all the usual electoral issues, ended up being hijacked by a web of increasingly nebulous accusations orchestrated by a single (hugely unreliable) source. 

At the end of the day, the only reason we were given to vote PN was that ‘Labour was corrupt’; and even here, the accusations had to be qualified. There was evidence of kickbacks in the sale of IIP passports, involving the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri, and Brian Tonna of Nexia BT. This was a serious issue, and deserved to be highlighted in an election campaign. But just look for a moment at how severely it was mishandled. 

Instead of limiting themselves only to allegations which they could actually prove, the Nationalist Party chose to lead with other allegations for which there was no evidence at all. It wasn’t enough to land Keith Schembri in court on money-laundering charges... no, they had to also somehow try and implicate Joseph Muscat directly. And they tried to do so on the basis of documents no one had ever seen, and which failed to ever materialise by the time we came to vote.

On what basis was the overwhelming majority expected to believe the Egrant allegations, exactly? ‘Because Daphne said so’? Sorry, but it doesn’t – and can’t – work that way. 

Having said all this, it is no use pointing fingers of blame at Daphne herself. Daphne is Daphne; but as far as I can see, the PN is NOT Daphne... nor should ever have allowed that equation to take root and flourish in the first place. 

Somebody (or quite a few people, by the look of things) must have thought it was a good idea to reduce the once glorious PN to the status of Daphne’s footstool: eagerly lapping up every crumb that fell from her table, as though ‘allegations on a blog’ were suddenly the automatic equivalent of an election-winning lottery ticket.

Meanwhile, from the outside looking in, it appeared as though the PN’s entire social media strategy – if such it can be called - involved butting into other people’s Facebook conversations, and simply browbeating all dissident voices into submission. We were being lectured to by people who had clearly blinded themselves to all the usual electoral realities, and who retreated ever further into their own social media bubble.

It seems to me that the same people are now hell-bent on maintaining their apparent stranglehold on the PN: an eventuality which will be absolutely fatal to that party, and which will cost the country a credible Opposition (which I need hardly add is what is sorely needed at the moment). It is not enough that these people have practically hamstrung the PN and made it unelectable; they want to ensure that it continues to wallow in its current mess. And they must not be allowed to succeed.

In any case: I would be interested to know how a party once renowned for incisive electoral strategies managed to reduce itself to such a state of denial. What was the PN actually hoping to achieve in this election, anyway? And how did they go about achieving it? 

I’ll tell you what my strategy would have been, had it been my job to provide one; and again, this has nothing to do with hindsight. There is a science to electioneering... certain basics are obvious from day one; in any election, anywhere in the world.

The first thing I would have done is sit down with the PN and ask them what sort of result they would realistically be happy with. Obviously, the answer could not have been ‘a win’. That was never going to be on the cards; to win this election would have required overturning a 36,000 majority. That’s a near-impossibility in most scenarios... just imagine a scenario where (for better or worse) the economy was doing well, and there was an undeniable feel-good factor in the air.

If no answer was forthcoming, I would have suggested a target myself. I would have recommended trying to slash Muscat’s majority by half. 

That was all along an achievable objective, and would have had an immediate impact on the political scenario. Muscat would have been cut down to size – forced to swallow the fact that governance issues had come at an enormous electoral cost. Under those circumstances I don’t think he would have reappointed either Keith Schembri or Konrad Mizzi. A warning shot would have been fired across his bows, and he would have been very unwise not to take full note of it.

The same result (or approximation thereof) would also have buoyed the Opposition party. Busuttil would have been able to say: ‘look, we didn’t win, but we’re halfway there.... give me another five years, and I’ll whittle that majority down to a minority’.

Of course he can’t say that now; but that only reinforces why the total dearth of strategic thinking must be questioned today. Otherwise, the same blunders that engineered this catastrophic defeat will concretise, and set the template for the Nationalist Party’s future.

The second thing to do was formulate a step-by-step strategy to translate that goal into a reality. Part of this would have involved the (provable) corruption allegations, yes; but only part. Other steps would have included identifying specific demographic segments that could be swayed on other issues. There were plenty of people who had reason to be uncomfortable with Muscat’s style of government. And their reasons had nothing whatsoever to do with Panama-style corruption.

One segment I would have targeted was the growing number of people who face financial difficulties on account of sky-rocketing rental accommodation prices. Thousands were (and still are) being pushed below the poverty line under a supposedly Socialist government; this creates a groundswell of discontent that could easily (and successfully) have been tapped into by an Opposition... or at least, by an Opposition that was actually trying to win an election, instead of only trying to get the prime minister and his wife arrested.

You could add other voter segments and issues to the list; the point is that the PN simply forgot about all that. It campaigned as if the only people who really mattered was a tiny minority of privileged, entitled, comfortable and (let’s face it) spoilt specimens of human being, who now inform us they feel ‘superior to all the other shits’.

It’s not the only thing the PN’s core strategy group forgot. They also forgot the lesson of the 1987 election, in which Opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami took great pains to reassure ‘Labour voters of good will’ that their jobs and livelihoods would not be threatened by a Nationalist win.

Today’s PN did the opposite. At one point Busuttil even said he wanted Malta’s institutions to be ‘Labour-proof’... and of course, it was duly seized on by Muscat in the final debate, to signify that an incoming PN administration would conduct a witch-hunt for ‘Laburisti’ across the full spectrum of the public service.

OK, we can argue about what Busuttil actually meant till we (literally) turn blue in the face. It hardly matters; anyone from a Labour background, and who might have been tempted to vote Nationalist in this election, would obviously have been put off. I reckon the PN might have lost thousands of votes on the strength of that single, ill-considered remark alone. 

Yet another thing the PN completely lost sight of is that any winning campaign strategy has to be built on two separate platforms. One of these platforms concerns discrediting the political adversary; undermining public trust; yes, even ‘demonising’, if you want to use that word. I’m not saying campaigns should be squeaky clean and polite. An element of aggression is vital (even more so, when your adversary is miles ahead of you in the trust ratings).

But that cannot be the only foundation from which to launch a successful electoral bid. The other platform – completely missing in this election - concerns rebuilding your own trust with the electorate; trying to convince a sceptical public (which has good reason to be sceptical, given the PN’s own record) that a Nationalist government would be stable, unthreatening and prosperous. 

I didn’t see even the ghost of an attempt in this direction by the PN in this election. They seemed to seriously think that attacking Joseph Muscat, on its own, would somehow magically translate into support for their own party. 

I could go on, but you can see where all this is heading. The Nationalist Party lost this election because it allowed itself to be hijacked by a tiny coterie of diehard supporters who are a) completely out of touch with the reality at street-level, and; b) completely clueless when it comes to what it takes to actually win an election. 

And I find this truly amazing, considering that the PN was until recently an unstoppable election-winning machine, appealing to all sectors of society, and literally brimming with talented and focused electoral strategists.

On a more positive note, the extent of the defeat in this election now gives the PN an opportunity to change course. It can (and must) rebuild itself – slowly and painfully – but it cannot hope to do so if it continues listening only to the people who have done it so much harm... while dismissing or alienating all the people who might actually be of help. 

Otherwise, I greatly fear there won’t even be a PN in the near future. And that won’t be good news to anybody.