A newspaper column I wrote three years ago, which remains relevant today

Published: June 6, 2017 at 10:26am


We need to hear from the demographers. Look at the newspapers and the television talk shows. It’s wall to wall retired politicians and not particularly bright journalists talking about what they think the election results mean.

I’m sorry, but who actually cares what they think and why does it matter? Voting patterns are a numbers game and not a matter of opinion or ‘observation’.

This is all about numbers. And unless you know who those people are and where they are coming from, all calculations are pointless and inadequate.

No political party can segment the market unless it has the demographics. There is no such thing as The People. There are only different social groups, and within those wider social groups there are many, highly or subtly differentiated other groups.

Muscat targeted the market so efficiently precisely because he had people to segment it for him. Labour’s last four years in Opposition were a terrific exercise in market segmentation. People and groups were targeted and instead of being insulted at the thought that they had been segmented and treated as targets, they were actually flattered.

The demographic factor has been completely ignored in the elections of the last few years, by journalists, so-called political observers and the Nationalist Party (at least from what I can see and without being privy to information). It is certainly not talked about on television or discussed in the newspapers though it is the most obvious basis for some really interesting analysis.

The number of registered electors is growing immensely, relative to population size, year on year. In which social groups is the biggest growth taking place?

The Labour Party and the Nationalist Party know how people in different socio-economic groups tend to vote, because they have polls to show them that. The PN has the vast majority of the vote in ABC1, for instance, and Labour in C2DE. In fact, the first sign that the PN is going to fare badly is when people in the upper socio-economic group begin speaking against it, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because they influence others.

The newspapers, in this election, did not ask for a breakdown of the vote in terms of socio-economic groups, in the surveys they commissioned. In general elections, they tend to do so.
Electoral patterns and choices over the last few years cannot be effectively interpreted without factoring in information on growth and shrinkage in different socio-economic groups.

It even goes beyond that. New ways of harvesting survey data in Britain are going way beyond the standard ABC1 C2DE, which ignores factors like social and family background and obtains information only on current job or profession/your personal level of education.
This now needs to be done in Malta.

It has, in fact, been imperative for the last 15 years or so. Many of what I call the ‘Super One crowd’ and ‘Nouveau Labour’ are technically in socio-economic group A because of their university education and their jobs/business interests/careers and income. But they remain intrinsically C2DE in attitude and values. And that is what shapes choices.

The child of illiterate labourers, who has obtained a university education and done well in his career, does not have the same outlook, values and motivation as the scion of a family that has been literate and comfortably off for many generations, who has also obtained a university education and done well in his career. Yet for survey purposes, both slot into the exact same socio-economic group. This is horribly misleading, because the results are warped.

Because social mobility in Malta is so strong and has been really incredibly strong in a concentrated period of just 15 years or so, the work of demographers really needs to come into play when studying election results and voting patterns.

The birth rate among different sectors of the population has to be factored in, too. When I look at footage of Labour mass meetings, I see a predominant mass of very young people, mainly teenagers. When I look at footage of PN meetings, the predominant mass is middle-aged. And this was even in 2008, when the PN won the majority of the youth vote – the young people would have been eclipsed by the older ones had they not been shoved up to the front.

I don’t think that this is because Labour is more attractive to young people than the Nationalist Party is – though that was certainly a factor in last year’s general election – because those are not the sorts of young people I see at Labour meetings.

I rather suspect that the real reason is demographic rather than political: that there was exponential growth of that part of the population over the last generation or so, with no parallel growth, exponential or otherwise, in the socio-economic group/s that have for years provided the Nationalist Party with its core vote.

There’s another point: whereas in the past it was the uneducated, semi-literate voting working-class and under-class who emigrated in large numbers, now it is the more highly educated and trained people from the PN’s core vote who are leaving Malta to live and work elsewhere.

15 Comments Comment

  1. Stephen Forster says:

    Perfect objective truth.

  2. It’s a LOT more than that. The shifting demographics are the reason for the growth of Labour’s CORE vote and the shrinking of the Nationalist Party’s.

  3. julian says:

    I totally agree. I first commented about this trend in the early 2000s.

    I remember Lawrence Gonzi ( at the time minister for social services) say that the birth rate was highest in the Bormla area. Fast forward about 20 years, and there you have it.
    In 1995 the population was circa 378,000, population is now 435,000.

    That is a growth rate of nearly 50,000 people – and it was 17,000 people which made the difference between the parties in this election and the one before.

    The problem is set to become worse, because though the PN won back thousands of the votes it lost in 2013, Labour made up for it in other sectors.

    If PN want to be in power, they must grab the bull by the horns and start working on weak districts.

    This is a difficult situation that should have been handled back in the 90s. It’s also one problem that cost millions in social services – because I’m not talking here only about the effect on the vote.

  4. Yes, I worked that out immediately. The only thing that would stop a person saying how they planned to vote is awkwardness not fear.

    • Peritocracy says:

      It could also be a way of trying to curry favour from both political parties. If they don’t know how you will vote, both parties have an incentive to woo you and promise you things.

      Another reason not to declare your voting intentions is to be able to declare the way you voted at a future point in time to suit your purposes and/or the government of the day. For example, come elections, you could say you voted for someone’s rivals to give them an incentive to offer you help or whatever.

      I know people who don’t vote so that as soon as the election is over they can flaunt their voter id and offer their vote to the party in government in return for favours.

  5. Xkamun says:

    The only way to solve Malta’s electoral divide and for the Nationalists to stand a chance of ever being elected again is for the North to seek independence from the South.

    That way, the South can have a dictatorial government that can do as it pleases, knowing the people will still be happily shouting “Viva l-Lejber, viva l-Lejber hey, hey” irrespective of what government dishes out, while the North can have the comfort of being constantly in power again, albeit with ever changing leaders, depending on the whim of the current switchers.

    Meanwhile, Gozo can either choose to become an Independent Republic or to change allegiance from North to South every five years, depending on whose tunnel plans are most plausible, something they’re expert at doing anyhow. We will thus have finally reached political Valhalla.

  6. Thank you. When I talk about market segmentation, it’s like I’m mentioning cheese on Mars.

    It’s the same with this website. How do they imagine that I have stayed totally relevant as a communicator for 30 decades if not because I know my audience and how to reach it?

    Your audience can never be ‘everyone’. It’s always going to be X kind of people and Y kind of people or Z kind of people. When you’re on the internet, you reach everyone, because you’re there at the touch of a key. But it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like you, love you or approve of you.

    Those who don’t are not your audience, full stop. And if you start trying to be all things to all men, you lose your audience.

  7. Yes, but that’s not the way things work.

  8. No, they’ve known about a 50,000 majority since late last year.

  9. How do you know they’re Labour-leaning? Unless you know them personally, that is.

  10. What makes Bormla the ‘south’ and Sliema, just across the harbour, the ‘north’? And where does Valletta fit into this scheme of things?

    That entire area is not ‘north’ and ‘south’. It’s called the Inner Harbour Area.

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