A snapshot in time

Raw figures, in themselves, can only tell you so much about any issue; they can accurately estimate the percentage of people who hold such and such an opinion; but they will never tell you ‘why’ the same number of people think or feel the way they do

It is an old maxim that surveys and polls only represent a ‘snapshot in time’… and that, like any other form of snapshot, the resulting picture may sometimes be misleading.

For one thing, people’s opinions tend to change over time. In the Maltese context, minds tend to be made up as the country approaches an election. (This in turn explains why the ‘Don’t Know’ bracket always tends to dwindle as the election date draws nearer.)

Elsewhere, there is evidence that certain issues, by their nature, tend to get misrepresented in polls. Surveys about socially or culturally sensitive topics – such as immigration or abortion – often yield inaccurate results, possibly because respondents feel more comfortable giving the answers they feel are expected of them.

It is arguably for this reason that the UK’s Brexit referendum result defied the prognostications of several surveys and polls. Given the disparity between predictions and reality, there must either have been a flaw in the methodology (which is unlikely, considering how many surveys yielded the same results)… or else, a percentage of ‘Leave’ voters must have indicated they were going to vote ‘Remain’ (for reasons that are perhaps best left for sociologists/psychologists to ponder).

Elsewhere still, it remains a fact that the results of any given survey will be, up to a point, subject to interpretation. Raw figures, in themselves, can only tell you so much about any issue; they can accurately estimate the percentage of people who hold such and such an opinion; but they will never tell you ‘why’ the same number of people think or feel the way they do.

For that, you need analysis and conjecture; and the result can only ever be an approximation of the truth.

Nonetheless, even a ‘snapshot in time’ will be accurate in at least some details. Our most recent survey, for instance, suggests that Joseph Muscat continues to enjoy unparalleled trust among voters, with a record rating of 54.8%.

This places Muscat 34 points ahead of Opposition leader Adrian Delia, who experienced a dip in his trust rating, and now stands at 20.4%.
There is, admittedly, no way of ‘testing’ the accuracy of those statistics… but they do coincide with other indications, including most other media’s predictions regarding the forthcoming European elections in June.

More worryingly for the Opposition, the decline conforms to a now recognisable pattern, strongly supported by past surveys that were subsequently ‘confirmed’ by election results. It is obviously no coincidence that the surge in Muscat’s popularity comes at a time of unprecedented economic growth and commercial activity on the island. And while there is plenty of room to argue that Delia’s nosedive may, or may not, be related to his marital woes… it also comes at a time when the party is visibly at its most divided (note: the survey predated the PN Executive Council’s declaration of ‘unanimous support’ for Delia).

As such, the latest survey seems to confirm that Maltese electorate chooses between what are perceived and/or constructed as viable options, in this case between Muscat and Delia and PL and PN. The choices are relative, and are made in a context of economic growth and disunity in opposition ranks.

But this has implications for how the results are interpreted. It would be a mistake to presume that the large segment which opts for Labour/Muscat is homogenous, or likeminded, when it comes to policies, issues, aspirations and values. It may also include a segment of voters who are critical of several aspects of governance and policy, but just don’t see any other realistic option.

Meanwhile, it is obvious that Labour has become a broad church, which is now prone to internal contradictions of its own. And although former PN voters prevail among undecided/not voters, it should not be assumed that these belong to one particular category. While at face value such a survey lends support to the idea of Labour becoming a ‘natural party of government’, which occupies a vast middle ground, the electorate may itself be more pluralistic.

This has ramifications for the political landscape. Any opposition, including third parties, cannot reduce their scope only to the restricted cohort of disillusioned/angry PN voters whose first priority is to get rid of Joseph Muscat. In reality, the most crucial category are those voters who, for different reasons, presently think Labour is the better option; but would be open to change if this reflects some of their aspirations.

However, this is not a uniform category. Some might be concerned by rising inequalities, others might have issues with rampant construction, or with migration, or inflation, poverty, pensions, and so on. Some may even be concerned by corruption, but cannot identify with an opposition which raised the stakes on this issue in a way which was seen as an attempt to subvert Labour’s mandate.

Ultimately, people have to be offered viable choices. Our survey may not be the last word on the exact status of the two parties; but it does suggest that the Opposition cannot rely only on ‘opposing Muscat at all costs’. There are other avenues of opposition to explore, just as there are other categories to be reflected by the Opposition’s scope.