Voters in south sound warning for Labour

Support for the Labour Party in its southern strongholds has been declining since June in what could be a veritable headache for Robert Abela’s administration. Kurt Sansone examines the MaltaToday survey numbers

In the last survey published on Sunday, the PL’s support dipped below the absolute majority to reach 44.5%
In the last survey published on Sunday, the PL’s support dipped below the absolute majority to reach 44.5%

Robert Abela may have a growing problem on his hands as support for the Labour Party in its traditional southern strongholds has been waning since June.

And the problem appears to be more acute in the Southern Harbour area, which includes the Cottonera, Żabbar, Fgura, Paola, Valletta and Marsa.

This region roughly comprises the 2nd electoral district, the 4th, and part of the 1st. In the last general election, the PL carried all three districts with comfortable margins, polling 57.2% in the 1st, 71.2% in the 2nd, and 67.7% in the 4th.

A look at the numbers derived from the MaltaToday surveys shows that in June the PL polled 66.1% in the Southern Harbour region, declining to 61.9% in July. The decline continued in September when the party polled 50.8%.

In the last survey published on Sunday, the PL’s support dipped below the absolute majority to reach 44.5%.

The South-Eastern region tells a similar story. This region, which includes the localities of Marsaskala, Żejtun, Marsaxlokk, Birżebbuġa and the airport villages, roughly coincides with the 3rd electoral district and the 5th. These districts are also PL strongholds.

In the last general election, the party received the support of 69.9% of the electorate in the 3rd District and 65.7% in the 5th.

The PL’s decline in the South-Eastern region started after July. Whereas the PL scored 61.1% in the July MaltaToday survey, this dropped to 50.4% by October.

Of significance is the fact the party’s decline in both regions was also reflected in a decline in the Prime Minister’s trust rating.

In June, Abela’s trust rating in the Southern Harbour ran at 75.4%, dropping to 52.7% by October. In the South-East, Abela’s trust rating went from 75.8% in July to 53.1% in October. The last survey pit Abela against newly-elected Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech for the first time.

While the surveys show that the PL continues to enjoy strong overall support, the downward trend in its traditional constituencies has caused ripples inside the party.

Functionaries at a district level who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity have pointed towards a number of issues effecting voters in these regions, including rising unemployment and housing problems.

“The going has not been easy for many and there are more people out of work as a result of the pandemic. There is also a growing problem of housing, which has not been helped by government’s inability to deliver a single social accommodation unit since being elected in 2013,” a Labour veteran said.

Another pointed out that Labour voters in the districts were feeling let down by their own government. “People feel side-lined and there is a growing feeling that ministers are becoming unreachable,” he said.

Another issue of concern in the two regions is immigration, especially in localities that house large immigrant communities. The Prime Minister has played the tough card on irregular migration but many feel he has not translated his strong words into remedial action on the ground.

“Robert Abela’s words have raised expectations among voters that something will be done about migration and although police patrols have increased in some localities this does not appear enough to allay concerns,” a Labour activist said.

He noted that with jobs and incomes under threat people were more likely to take a negative view of migrants and foreigners, a situation that could easily turn into a powder keg if mishandled.

More recently, people with elderly relatives who died of COVID-19 or contracted the infection while in elderly homes are also angry at what they believe is government’s mishandling of the situation in care homes.

“Generally, people in these regions do not blame government for the surge in coronavirus cases but those who had elderly relatives contract the infection while living in care homes are angry at the lack of effective action shown by government in dealing with these institutions,” the same Labour activist said.

But there also appears to be a more local problem linked to the way Abela unceremoniously dumped veteran 2nd District MP Joe Mizzi from his Cabinet last January.

Mizzi, who has been elected to parliament in every election since 1987, was the third Labour candidate to get elected from the 2nd District after Joseph Muscat and Helena Dalli in the last general election. Muscat and Dalli have since resigned their seat in parliament, leaving the district without a minister. Chris Agius, who was also elected from the district serves as parliamentary secretary.

“Joe Mizzi is popular on the district and the way he was axed by the Prime Minister for no apparent reason has left many party supporters with a sour taste,” a source close to the PL administration said.

How Abela will deal with these problems is not easy. He inherited a government that was at its lowest ebb in January and shortly after faced a pandemic of global proportions.

Thrust in a prime ministerial role from day one with no chance to make mistakes, Abela needs to reconnect his government with voters’ concerns and aspirations.

Like his predecessor would attest, taking care of the macro problems must not come at the expense of micro issues that concern people in their everyday lives.