It’s (not just) Delia stupid

ANALYSIS | Five reflections on the MaltaToday survey results that show how after changing its leader and facing its greatest crisis in the past decade, Labour has continued to increase its majority

While Adrian Delia’s abysmal trust rating is aggravating the Opposition’s problems, the considerable shift of PN voters to Labour suggests that the governing party is also winning on its own merits and strategy. And despite facing an unprecedented crisis which led to the disgraceful exit of its former leader, under its new leader Labour has consolidated its position even among the university-educated, the only sector where Labour saw a drop in support in December.

[FULL DATA] Abela trust skyrockets, Delia registers lowest trust rating ever

1. Delia is only trusted by 34% of Nationalist voters. He can’t lead a party, the majority of whose voters do not trust him

Delia has never managed to unite the party behind him let alone convince people from the other side to cross over. Delia has seen his trust rating among PN voters decline from 61% in December 2018 to just 34% now. Moreover within the restricted cohort of the PN’s electorate, he is sandwiched between two opposite categories: one which is warming up to Labour and another which would opt for a more intransigent leader. A further one-third of Nationalist voters replied ‘don’t know’. The survey itself shows that while 11% of PN voters trust neither Delia nor Abela, 23% trust Abela more than Delia. All this within the same category which voted for Simon Busuttil’s party in 2017.

What the survey shows clearly is that Delia is not the ideal leader to unite the different outlooks within the PN itself. While Delia is clearly not trusted by those in the party who would like a leader more in synch with the protest moment spearheaded by Repubblika, a more intransigent leader will also find it difficult to rein in those who are giving Abela the benefit of the doubt.

The problem for the PN is bigger than Delia for the sheer reason that when asked who they trust most, a quarter replied Abela – when they also had an option to reply ‘don’t know’ or ‘none of them’.

And while the PN may opt for a leader who can strike a balance between being conciliatory at times and confrontational at others, this task may be harder than it looks. For that is what Delia has been trying to do for the past months and failed. Still, one may argue that a leader without the baggage associated with Delia, may have greater moral authority both in fighting corruption and in offering his hand in cooperation when required. It is also possible that some PN voters who opted for Abela did so not because they ever intend switching to Labour but simply because they resent Delia and want him to go.

2. Muscat is gone but for now Labour has regrouped around Abela

The survey makes it clear that Labour is not dependent on Muscat for its popularity. In fact Abela is more trusted than Muscat ever was. The survey also eradicates any hope among PN strategists that the PL would emerge divided after its leadership contest. In fact Abela is trusted by a staggering 96% of PL voters.

Although it may be early days, the survey confirms that the leadership contest has not left any permanent wounds.

What may be more problematic for Abela is his relationship with former PL leader Joseph Muscat, especially if pending investigations related to the Caruana Galizia murder probe close in on Muscat allies like Keith Schembri or on Muscat himself. For while Muscat remains popular among Labour voters, former PN voters warming up to Abela may expect a more decisive break with the former leader.

Moreover, while Abela was elected by Labour members on a promise of continuity, he also earned the respect of middle-of-the-road voters by showing clear signs of detachment from Muscat during his first days in office. It remains to be seen whether Abela will be keener on not disappointing Muscat loyalists or not disappointing non-Labourites who can boost his majority further. Somewhere along the line Abela will have to make hard choices, which may leave some disappointed.

3. The PN is losing 5% of its 2017 voters to Labour and 2% to smaller parties

Labour only loses 1% of its voters to the PN. The shift may be even greater if those PN voters who trust Abela more than Delia shift to Labour.

The survey offers a hint of a potential third exit of switchers from the PN to the PL. Surveys undertaken before the political crisis showed a similar shift between the two parties under Muscat. This suggests that the shift has so far been triggered by social and economic factors not related to the December crisis. The haemorrhage from the PN only stopped briefly in the December poll, which showed a minimal shift of 1% from PL to PN and vice versa.

What is new in the latest survey is the emergence of a new category of voters consisting of PN voters who trust Abela more than Delia but who have yet not shifted their support to Labour. In fact while the gap between Abela and Delia amounts to a staggering 49 points, the gap between PL and PN now amounts to 25 points.

It may well be the case that some of those who prefer Abela to Delia would still vote PN while others are undecided or intent on not voting.

Delia is at the moment weaker than his party, which is 10 points more popular than its own leader. But what the survey clearly shows is that the PN is at risk of even greater exodus if it does not manage to contain within it those moderate voters who are not averse towards Abela. The survey also shows that Abela may enjoy a greater appeal among PN voters than Muscat himself.

4. Labour has gained ground among the university-educated

This is a sign that Abela enjoys a higher standing in traditionally PN leaning cohorts than Muscat. It also suggests that Labour is winning on its own merits not simply Delia is bad.

Back in December it was only among the university-educated that Labour experienced a significant drop. Among this category Labour lost 3 points while the PN gained gained 13 points over the previous month. It was the only category in which the PN commanded a relative majority.

But following Abela’s election support for Labour has increased from 25% to 30% while support for the PN has decreased from 32% to 17%. In this category support for Labour is even 3 points higher than it was in November before the crisis which led to Muscat’s premature exit.

Moreover in this category Robert Abela is trusted by 53% while Delia is only trusted by 8%. The November poll held before the political crisis had showed Muscat enjoying the trust of only 34% among the university-educated compared to Delia’s 9%. While the latest survey may be skewed by the honeymoon effect, it does indicate that tertiary-educated voters are positively inclined towards the new Labour leader. On the other hand among secondary-educated voters Abela has only seen an improvement of 2 points over Muscat’s November trust rating. This may be an indication that if Abela succeeds in cleaning up his party’s act he may aspire to a bigger majority than Muscat.

This may be an important consideration if Abela wants to ride on the groundswell of good will and go for an early election. But to that he has to prolong the honeymoon and even give voters concerned by good governance a scalp. For his hold on middle of the road voters may be fragile as evidenced by revulsion when news emerged of Konrad Mizzi’s secret MTA contract and his appointment to lead an OSCE delegation. Abela saved the day by quickly backtracking on the appointment and terminating the contract but he may be less lucky next time.

5. Oppositions, including smaller parties, are not tapping into discontentment in Labour on the environment and growing social inequalities

The two party system may actually be reinforcing Labour’s position by enabling it to project itself as a more competent alternative to a mediocre and divided opposition, thus roping in segments in Labour’s own coalition which are not so keen on some aspects of its policies. While many blame the current predicament on divisions in the opposition, keeping unity in mediocrity also comes at a cost, preventing the emergence of more coherent narratives, which can outflank labour from the left or from the right.

Superficially, the survey which shows Labour retaining 90% of its 2017 voters suggests that Labour’s electorate is composed of one solid block of voters. But in reality Labour does harbour within it voters who may have concerns on issues like the environment, immigration and widening social inequalities.

And while the key to Labour’s success could be its ability to communicate with aspirational middle-class voters, it may well be the case that some voters are alienated by the party’s pro business platitudes, especially when these clash with the common good.

What is remarkable is that small parties have not made any inroads despite the crisis. The survey suggests that the prospective unification of AD and PD has still not captured the imagination of voters. One reason for this is that voters find non-partisan activist groups like Graffitti more effective in campaigning for concrete changes or opposing over-development than investing their vote in a small party with few chances of ever making it to parliament. Reppublika may also be tapping into the dissent on good governance, even if its influence is mostly restricted to Nationalist-leaning cohorts.

Moreover the change in leadership may well have raised hopes that Labour may start correcting some of its mistakes. For example, while still promising continuity with Muscat’s economic model, Abela seems less keen on sounding too pro-business and hints at greater investment in the neglected housing… sector even if he immediately shot down the idea of a living wage.

The survey does raise the prospect of Labour reinforcing its position as a natural party of government by occupying the centre-ground of Maltese politics while correcting some of the excesses of the Muscat era. But after the honeymoon is over, Abela will be tested by the different expectations and aspirations of voters within the broad church which he now leads.

READ ALSO: The trust figures that spell trouble for Adrian Delia and the PN