Where did all the PN’s lost votes go?

All it would take to harness the current large swathe of undecided voters is a new party that can appeal to their demands of better governance… and the environment

For around three years now, political surveys conducted by various newspapers have revealed a fairly consistent pattern, aptly summarized by the following headline in last Sunday’s Times: ‘Labour is way ahead as Delia performs abysmally’.

The accompanying survey echoes much the same findings as our own poll last month… as does our own, entirely analogous choice of headline: ‘Labour’s support continues to increase, PN remains static.’

Unsurprisingly, both these surveys prompted renewed calls for the resignation of Adrian Delia as PN leader… for all the world as if Delia’s removal, on its own, would actually make a jot of difference to the current political landscape.

And yet, neither The Times’ poll, nor our own – nor any of the others that have yielded similar results in recent years – actually suggests anything of the kind, as far as I can see.

For while Delia himself has clearly failed to turn around his party’s fortunes… it is altogether too easy to assume (as so many are doing) that the PN’s ‘abysmal’ performance is the direct result of its choice of leader in August 2017.

But this overlooks the fact that Delia himself is a product of a malaise which has gripped that party ever since at least around 2008: i.e., when the PN first started to nosedive in popular support… and long, long before Adrian Delia even came into the picture at all.

From this perspective, ‘blaming the PN leader’ has become a convenient way to simply gloss over any of the other reasons for the Nationalist Party’s steady decline over the past 12 years or more.

And any serious discussion on this subject would also have to take into account a whole raft of other factors… including (in no particular order):

> The PN’s failure to ever come up with any meaningful political identity to replace its earlier pro-EU vision;

> Its failure to inspire or enthuse younger generations of voters (in stark contrast to Labour’s rejuvenation over the same time-period);

> The fact that it foolishly allowed itself to be reduced to a single-issue party before the 2017 election… and even then, latching onto a single issue (i.e., the Egrant allegations) which clearly did not resonate with the overwhelming majority in this country;

> Not to mention its own 25-year track-record in government, which (let’s face it) makes the PN an unlikely candidate to tackle any of the issues that have risen to dominate the national agenda: e.g., migration, corruption, governance, the environment, etc.

None of that is in any way attributable to Adrian Delia; and – much more pertinently – all of it will remain in place after Adrian Delia is gone.

Besides, there are other reasons to believe that ousting the present leader, at this stage, could backfire. Strange as this may seem to his many detractors within the PN, Adrian Delia still enjoys the support of a not-insignificant cohort of Nationalist voters. The Times places the figure at 15%; in our survey, it was closer to 22%.

Either way, it is a percentage of grassroots support that the Nationalist Party would simply have to kiss goodbye forever, if it decides to make Adrian Delia walk the plank (thus becoming the first PN leader in history to not actually lead his party into an election). For whoever takes his place will likewise be at the helm of a divided, eviscerated party… and something tells me the poll results would remain more or less exactly the same, too.

Much more importantly, however, Delia still has the active backing of the party administration: which has so far reconfirmed him as leader, not once, but twice. So even if he is somehow persuaded to resign, or removed in any other way… his replacement would still be chosen by the same people who have made it abundantly (and repeatedly) clear that they actually wanted Delia to remain all along.

This leaves the PN with only one alternative course of action: that is, to resign itself to certain defeat at the next election, on the understanding that Delia would then have to resign anyway (without, under those circumstances, taking a sizeable chunk of the party’s supporters with him).

The problem with that approach, however, is that it also condemns the country to at least five more years of a virtually unopposed Labour government; and while that may well be the electorate’s democratic choice, at the end of the day… it also means that Robert Abela will remain under no real electoral pressure to address any of the systemic institutional/governance issues that have damaged Malta’s reputation so irreparably over the past three or so years.

And this is hugely ironic, because it is those very concerns (corruption, good governance, etc.)  that have resulted in such a mass exodus from the PN under Adrian Delia.

In other words, the fall-out from Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder in October 2017 (on top of all the other corruption scandals that have since emerged) has in the end served only to strengthen the Labour Party’s stranglehold on power in this country: when, by rights, it should really have worked the other way round.

Is this Adrian Delia’s fault, too? Or is it the fault of all those who seem to prefer scuttling the Nationalist Party altogether… rather than doing what logic should surely dictate under such circumstances, and work towards rebuilding an Opposition that can actually give Labour a good run for its money in two years’ time?

Having said all this, though… there is (as the expression goes) more than one way to skin a cat; and there is certainly more than one way to interpret a survey result.

One major problem with all these surveys (including our own) is that pretty much everything about them – from the way the questions are phrased, to the choice of headline, all the way down to the mindset of the respondents themselves – is framed entirely through the prism of Malta’s ancestral ‘two-party system’… almost as though that were the only political reality that is even possible.

But it isn’t; not by a long shot. And that, too, is part of the message that all these surveys also impart (though very few people seem to be receiving it).

Personally, I think economist Lino Briguglio may have come a lot nearer the mark with his observation that: “If we go by The Times poll results […] only 38% would vote Labour, meaning that they do not want a change of government, whereas the remaining 62% indicated that would either vote PN (15%), are undecided (37%), or would not vote (10%). […] I take this to mean that 62% are not happy with the PL in government, of which 37% are undecided…”

There is, perhaps, a small flaw in that reasoning: in the sense that the ‘undecided’ category (regardless how big or small) cannot realistically be interpreted as ‘not happy with PL’. For all we know, the majority of that 37% might eventually decide to vote Labour anyway… as, in fact, happened during the last two elections.

Nonetheless, Briguglio is perfectly right to seize on that 37%, and to argue that it could form the basis of a political turnaround.

For if the PN’s support-base has dwindled from around 50% (as it always used to be in the past) to just 15% today… well, this raises an inevitable question: where did all those lost votes go?

The same polls indicate that very few of them went to Labour; and none at all went to AD (and even less to PD… which, curiously, wasn’t even mentioned at all in The Times poll).

No, even the simplest of mathematical operations (i.e., ‘50 minus 15’) will instantly reveal their present whereabouts: they are all now ensconced within that all-important 37% ‘undecided’ bracket… which also means that (technically, at least) all those lost PN votes are still up for grabs.

All it would take to harness that large swathe of undecided voters, then, is the emergence of a new party that can appeal to their demands of better governance… as well as addressing some of the other issues that the two-party system has so far always failed to address; like the environment, for instance.

And even if this hypothetical new party cannot hope to counterbalance Labour on its own… it could still form part of a coalition movement – alongside Delia’s PN, and the already-existing AD/PD alliance – which could go a long way towards restoring a political equilibrium that seems to otherwise have been permanently lost.

Rather than just sit back and complain endlessly about Adrian Delia, then, the obvious course of action for disillusioned Nationalists to take would be to unite under a new political banner, and forge a new political alliance that might actually stand toe-to-toe with the monolithic behemoth that Labour has meanwhile become.   

And yet, no matter how many surveys repeatedly tell us that this not only perfectly possible, but eminently feasible… well, I just don’t see it happening right now.

And at the risk of repeating an earlier question: whose fault is that, at the end of the day?