[ANALYSIS] The Grech method: gaining ground by saying little

Is Bernard Grech making inroads by not upsetting the apple cart with too many commitments or warlike declarations, letting Labour boil in the sauce of its own contradictions? JAMES DEBONO looks at MaltaToday’s latest survey

PN leader Bernard Grech
PN leader Bernard Grech

The latest MaltaToday survey suggests that new PN leader Bernard Grech has completed the first stage of his strategy, recovering the same level of support as Simon Busuttil in 2017 by winning back the Delia sceptics and consolidating his hold among tertiary-educated voters.

But this will surely not win him an election, leaving him at the risk of suffering a similar defeat as Lawrence Gonzi in 2013 and Simon Busuttil in 2017. And although few expect him to win the next election, his position as PN leader after the next election depends on narrowing this gap. Ironically, Grech can only achieve this by ditching the PN’s reputation as a losers’ party, something which is hard to achieve for a party with so few chances of winning.

Enter Phase 2?

For the first time the MaltaToday survey offers a glimpse of the second stage of Grech’s trajectory, that of making small but significant gains among other categories of voters – including Labour voters in 2017. In fact the survey shows 6% of PL voters in 2017 now intending to vote PN while only 2% of PN voters intend voting PL. Even more significantly, 11% of PL voters in 2017 trust Grech more than Abela in contrast to 6% of PN voters, who trust Abela more than Grech.

Even if these gains hold on in the next months, this will not be enough for Grech to win the next election but it would put him in a better position to narrow the gap.

But any gains Grech made in the survey may be flimsy and within the margin of error of the survey, even a reflection of post-Xmas COVID blues. In short, a post-vaccine recovery may well trigger a feelgood factor which could erode any such gains. Therefore, any gains have to be confirmed in future surveys and it remains uncertain whether Grech has really embarked on his phase-2.

What has Grech achieved?

While it is perfectly possible that the tide could shift from one month to the next, Grech has consolidated his position within PN-leaning cohorts, winning back a clear majority in the northern and north harbour districts and among tertiary-educated voters. But despite Grech’s focus on Gozo, Abela and the PL retain their lead in the sister island.

Indeed, despite the small shift in its favour, the PN is mostly making gains within its traditional cohorts and still finding it difficult to penetrate the southern and south eastern regions, and strategic cohorts like post-secondary and non-university voters where Labour remains dominant.

One trend which needs confirmation in future surveys are PN gains among those aged 18-35, a very fluid category where Abela is still more trusted then Grech but where the PN now enjoys a slight lead. But weighing on the result is the fact that 21% of this category would abstain in a forthcoming election. Among this category a staggering 35% is either not voting or undecided and 28% trust neither of the two leaders.

Unity is strength

What Grech has surely achieved is, without going into overdrive, stopping the spiral of decline to start focusing on future gains. Grech has proved an important maxim of Maltese politics: that unity is a precondition for future growth and that a divided house does not inspire any trust. In fact Grech has done everything to keep the peace internally but has refrained from any significant action which could create factional warfare: he still to reshuffle his shadow cabinet.

Unity may also come at a price. For at the roots of Malta’s good governance deficit is the reluctance of political parties to uproot the bad weeds in fear that this would create disunity. Surely Grech has reclaimed that segment of the party, which resented Delia for not being energetic enough on the corruption front.

But unlike Simon Busuttil, Grech himself refrains from warlike pronouncements and has largely focused on less divisive issues, like the pandemic, while also reaching out to Labour voters by commemorating Karen Grech’s murder.

What does Grech stand for?

As the election approaches people may expect Grech to come up with a vision which includes a few concrete proposals. Over the past months Grech has been vague on policy commitments, including a half-baked reference to a living wage, waffling on important issues like the Gozo tunnel, and refrained from alienating powerful lobbies like hunters and developers, giving the impression that he is running with the hares while chasing with the hounds.

But he has also shown leadership, ditching his own perceived conservatism by pre-empting Abela to endorse the reduction of the waiting period between separation and divorce.

What remains unclear is what Grech stands for. Perhaps part of his success lies in not antagonising too many people and projecting his party as a safe harbour for those floaters and past PL voters who inevitably start experiencing ‘Labour fatigue’.

As happened in 2013 with Muscat, floaters tend to gravitate towards unflappable, inclusive types who can project stability rather than conflict, even if this often disguises contradictions that come to the boil only when elected in power.

What Grech may be doing is projecting his party as a broad church kept together by a vague vision, based on platitudes like the common good, but devoid of clear commitments on wages, housing, planning, migration and infrastructure which would inevitably pit him against strong and influential lobbies.

There is a limit to how much Grech can hold his act together without making clear choices. The PN cannot ignore the issues raised by civil society and NGOs which are at present more vocal than the party itself, but whose stances present both opportunity and risks for the opposition. The PN risks being torn between the prospect of reclaiming its position as a trusted party of the establishment and dispenser of patronage, and its bid to project enthusiasm for a change in the country’s direction.

New blood needed

While the electorate may be tired of endless partisan warfare and a crusading opposition like that headed by Simon Busuttil, voters need a motivation to rally behind the PN as a credible alternative government.

Much also depends on whether Grech can inject new blood in a party whose pool of talent has shrunk. His problem is that with the party destined to lose the next election, it is still not attractive enough for careerists who would only jump on the winning cart. Neither does it offer enough hope to idealists.

While the party may tap dissatisfaction on issues like the environment and governance, this dissatisfaction may be less felt among more traditional cohorts which the PN needs to win back to construct a new majority.

And although becoming increasingly unwieldy for the two big parties to contain within them so many contradictory interests, the two-party system remains resilient. In fact, one of Grech’s advantages is that till now he faces no pressure from the ADPD outfit, which has so far made little headway.

Abela’s pain, Grech’s gain

The gains made by Grech in the latest survey coincide with Abela’s dip to his lowest trust rating ever.

Grech’s advantage may well be that Labour’s contradictions, rooted in the broad coalition created by Joseph Muscat, are bound to become more acute under Abela, who is under increased pressure to give partisans their pound of flesh in a balancing act that keeps them happy while distancing Labour from Muscat’s excesses. So while on one hand Abela must clean up his own house, he also must inspire tribal loyalty to legitimise his leadership.

The risk is that he either alienates his own allies, or emerge from this balancing act a more divisive leader. One example was his recent clash with teachers, a category which had warmed to Labour before 2013 but which found itself the target of social media attacks by PL supporters in recent days. Instead of burying the hatchet after signing an agreement with the MUT, Abela praised strike-breakers in his Sunday homily. It is this attitude which may facilitate Grech’s inroads among categories like lowly-paid professionals, which fell out with Gonzi administrations but are increasingly dissatisfied by Labour’s antics.

What we might be looking at is the beginning of a cyclical movement, often reflected in 10-year electoral cycles, which sees governments experiencing loss of trust after a decade in power.

But Labour can survive, not just thanks to the scale of its advantage, but also to its ability to reinvent itself; even if Abela finds it increasingly harder to keep the pieces together.

But the steps being taken by the PN leader may be coming two years too late.

With an election looming, Grech will be under increased pressure to step up his act to galvanise the movement needed to sustain an electoral campaign.

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