Grech must reach beyond the political divide

While Grech has clearly won over educated PN voters – who, under Delia, were inclined to not vote at all - he is clearly not succeeding in communicating with working class voters and addressing their concerns

Since the election of Bernard Grech as leader last October, the Nationalist Party has undeniably experienced a morale boost: with early polls indicating the recovery of some of the ground previously lost by Adrian Delia.

But our latest survey suggests that Grech has not followed this through by making any further gains amongst other categories of voters, beyond those who simply distrusted the former PN leader.

Effectively, this leaves Grech in much the same position as Simon Busuttil before the 2017 election: i.e., faring better than Delia when it comes to reuniting the PN, but still failing to make any significant inroads across the divide. So if nothing changes, Grech may not just ‘fail to narrow the gap’ (which represents the most realistic of the PN’s electoral targets, at the moment); but he may even end up losing the next election with the same gap as Busuttil.

And there is no indication that anything substantial has changed. For while our survey shows that Grech has managed to surpass a trust rating of 30% (a feat which eluded his predecessor whose trust rating hovered around 20%) – there has been no significant shift from PN to PL, or vice-versa.

Once again, the PN has a problem with the 18-35 age bracket: where less than one fifth intend to vote PN, while 35% would vote PL. This shows that the PN has yet to find the right formula among a category which is not particularly attached to Labour but is alien to the PN.

Of even greater concern to Grech, however, is that Labour has consolidated its hold among the over-65 category: amongst which 59% trust Abela and 57% intend voting Labour.

This comes in the wake of a relatively generous budget which raised pensions; but also after a spike in COVID deaths among this category.

The survey suggests no outrage among the elderly on the government handling of COVID despite mounting deaths; so any hope Grech may have had of benefiting from a ‘fall-out’, due to the pandemic, appears to have been dashed.

As things stand, the only age group which has warmed to the PN is the 36- to 50 group, where the two parties and nearly level. The survey also shows the PN holding a very small advantage among university educated voters: but losing in all other educational cohorts.

Again, this represents a small improvement from Delia’s leadership – under which, Labour used to score a majority in all educational cohorts – but this tells us more about Delia’s past failure, than Grech’s present success.

Besides: while Grech has clearly won over educated PN voters – who, under Delia, were inclined to not vote at all - he is clearly not succeeding in communicating with working class voters and addressing their concerns.

All the same, it is not all bad news for the PN leader. On his part, Prime Minister Robert Abela seems stuck around the 47% trust rating mark. The Labour party has also seen a decrease in support in the southern harbour district: where a staggering 16% are intent on not voting if an election is held now. This suggests some disgruntlement among Labour voters: even it is not going the PN’s way, at the moment.

It is difficult to assess the cause of this disgruntlement, and how permanent it may be. Nonetheless, it suggests that cracks may be forming in Labour’s previously impregnable electoral fortress.

But to successfully narrow the gap, Bernard Grech needs to start attracting those voters who, for a plurality of reasons, voted Labour in 2013 and 2017. These include both floaters who simply wanted a change of government after 25 years of PN rule; but also former PN voters who felt (rightly or wrongly) aggrieved by the party’s policies or actions.

This category also includes a groundswell of voters who previously felt that the Nationalist Party was always the more dependable of the two – a ’safe pair of hands’, to quote an old PN slogan – especially when it comes to governing in difficult conditions.

Unfortunately for the PN, however, this perception seems to have been reversed since 2013. This may also explain why the Opposition still struggles to make inroads, even at a time of national crisis (which, as a rule, usually works against the interests of the incumbent government).

Grech therefore still has a lot of work to do, if he is going to convince the electorate to place its former trust in the Nationalist Party. And if nothing else, the survey also gives an indication of where to start.