[ANALYSIS] Why is Labour’s lead so unassailable?

There is no other way to look at it: as things stand Labour is heading to another landslide similar to that in 2013 and 2017. Why has Labour retained its lead despite a global pandemic and a string of arrests and revelations that shook the country to the core? asks James Debono

Shadow of Joseph: the 2017 election showed Malta the presidential reach Muscat had not just with Labour voters but beyond
Shadow of Joseph: the 2017 election showed Malta the presidential reach Muscat had not just with Labour voters but beyond

The latest MaltaToday survey is definitely bad news for the Nationalist Party. Despite their 26,000-vote gap, down from 35,000 in 2017, the gap could increase to near 2017 levels if respondents who trust Robert Abela more than Bernard Grech vote Labour, a not unlikely prospect considering the increasingly presidential style adopted by parties in Maltese elections.

Abela enjoys a trust which is 5 points higher than his party’s level of support, while Grech is just as popular as his own party, which means that Labour has more room for growth in the next months than the PN does. And while 5% of PL voters in 2017 trust Grech more than Abela, 7% of PN voters in the same election trust Abela more than Grech. Although when it comes to voting intentions the PN does benefit from a small shift in its favour, the trust rating results suggests that if all those who trust Abela more than Grech were to vote PL, Labour could actually increase its 2017 majority.

This suggests that in a presidential style election campaign, Abela will start with a significant advantage.

And while the gap between the parties now stands at 6 points, the gap between the two leaders is at 11 points. Additionally, the PN is making little inroads among electorally strategic cohorts like younger voters, the post-secondary educated and Gozitans; and its gains are mainly limited in its northern strongholds and among the tertiary-educated.

In short, while Grech has regrouped the PN and benefitted from an initial trust boost, he has not advanced to the next level that of winning back over a substantial percentage of 2017 Labour voters. Moreover a 9-point decline in voters who trust neither leader from last month, resulted in a 7-point increase in Abela’s trust rating, yet another clear indication of favourable trend for Labour and its leader.

So how on earth is Labour winning with such a huge margin after all that has happened in the past month?

The surge in COVID cases after Christmas was a major problem for Abela. But decisive action restored his credibility by showing leadership in difficult times

Abela had seen trust dropping from 48% in November to 40% in March. The decline reflected a surge in COVID-19 cases after Christmas, which was initially met with hesitation on whether to impose a soft lockdown or not. Abela’s previous declarations, downplaying the risk of a second wave, also came back to haunt him as the Opposition pressed on this issue. Despite the ongoing hardships experienced by businesses forced to close down, voters appear to have appreciated the change of tack by the Prime Minister, who has now adopted a more cautious approach to the eventual lifting of restrictions.

Moreover Malta’s high vaccination rate may have also boosted optimism and made the soft lockdown more bearable. And as past surveys have shown, voters tend to rally behind national leaders during national emergencies. Abela himself had benefitted from a surge in trust rating during the first lockdown.

The fluctuations in Abela’s trust rating during the pandemic suggests that the issue may return to haunt Abela if restrictions are lifted carelessly resulting in another surge of cases, possibly triggered by new variants. But if Abela sticks to the more prudent approach, which characterised his decisions in the past weeks, he may be in a position to benefit from another boost in popularity triggered by the feelgood factor resulting from the restoration of normality.

Abela’s precarious balancing act on rule of law issues, has so far paid off in electoral terms

The arrest of Keith Schembri on the basis on an inquiry triggered by Simon Busuttil’s 2017 allegation on kickbacks from Brian Tonna and the Progress Press payments to Allied directors, has not dented Labour’s support.

Neither was Abela penalised by the explosive revelation that MacBridge, a company identified as a client of Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi’s secret company companies, belonged to Cheng Chen, the chief negotiator in the sale of the Delimara power station to Shanhgai Electric Power.

This suggests that Abela has managed to distance himself from his predecessor’s administration without going the extra mile of disowning Joseph Muscat and ordering an investigation of all the deals involving Schembri.

This balancing act remains a precarious one, especially if more inquiries are concluded which further expose the level of corruption under Muscat’s watch.

But so far Abela has managed to retain the loyalty of Muscat’s fan base by sounding hawkish in his exchange with the Opposition, while benefitting from the good will of M.O.R. voters, giving him the benefit of the doubt in view of police action against some of the culprits.

What is sure is that voters have not deserted Labour despite clear indications of wrong doing at the highest levels of government. One reason is that corruption and rule of law issues are still eclipsed by bread-and-butter issues, which remain the primary consideration of most voters.

But Abela may have to thread carefully. While voters may be giving him the benefit of the doubt, he still has to earn their full trust. Abela may be postponing an inevitable reckoning with his predecessor, and trust in Abela may be more conditional than that displayed towards Muscat before 2017. In this sense, Abela’s hold on the electorate may be more precarious and one grounded in a choice between him and the Opposition leader.

Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech addressing supporters in Victoria (Photo: PN)
Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech addressing supporters in Victoria (Photo: PN)

The Opposition still struggles to project itself as an alternative government

Bernard Grech has reunited his party, and surveys dispel a Labour attempt to wedge a rift in the PN by portraying him as part of the establishment which dethroned Adrian Delia. In fact this month’s survey shows Grech scoring his best ever trust rating.

Yet despite these gains among the Nationalist cohort, Grech still needs time to start connecting with electorally strategic categories and to present a new team, which clearly conveys the message that the PN has changed and is ready to govern. One major factor in surveys is that respondents are pragmatically choosing between what they consider as the two viable options. This means that voters who may be increasingly critical of Abela and Labour would still express a preference for them simply because they still do not perceive the opposition as a government-in-waiting. This may explain the dissonance between survey results showing Labour ahead by a substantial lead and greater disgruntlement with regards to Labour’s style of governing.

In short, Labour is increasingly a coalition of die-hard supporters who would support their party in any case and a segment, which is increasingly critical but not ready to change the country’s government at this juncture.

Opposition leader Bernard Grech
Opposition leader Bernard Grech

The PN has not stopped its haemorrhage of voters even among its restricted cohort of 2017 voters, which suggests that despite his divisive antics, Abela still appeals to a segment of former PN voters

7% of PN voters who voted for Simon Busuttil’s party in 2017 now trust Abela more than Grech. 4% of this already restricted segment has already decided on voting for Labour. This suggests that the small inroads Grech is making among Labour voters are being offset by a parallel shift of voters from the PN to Labour. Like Muscat before him, Abela manages to appeal to a segment of Nationalist voters.

One possible reason for this is that Abela benefits from the power of incumbency, with Labour holding leverage over patronage strings.

Another possible reason is that despite being knocked down by scandal, Labour is increasingly perceived as a natural party of government. By moving to the political centre and on some issues to the right, Labour has outflanked the PN gaining a foothold among socially liberal but economically conservative voters. This includes rent-seekers with a PN history who have found new pastures under Labour as well as beneficiaries of policies and permits which are ruining the Maltese landscape.

And while this has created some disgruntlement among some Labour voters, the PN remains off limits for most of them. So far, instead of seeking new pastures, these voters either abstain or reluctantly continue supporting Labour. The question is, for how long will they vote with a peg on their nose?

40% of under-35s remain uncommitted, but so far they are not shifting towards the PN

20% of voters under-35 trust neither leader, while 17% are intent on not voting. Nearly 40% are either undecided on who to vote for, or would abstain. On one hand this suggests the outcome of the election may be impacted by any surge in support for the PN or possibly a third party, in this category. The high level of indecision in this age group suggests that campaigning by both parties in the next months may still change the outcome of the election.

But the survey still suggests that Labour has more room to grow in this category than the PN. For while 37% of these young voters would vote PN, 41% trust Abela. On the other hand the PN is more popular than Grech in this category. While 21% would vote PN, only 18% of younger voters trust Grech more than Abela.

Tellingly, despite indications of disgruntlement with the political system evident in the high level of abstention in this category, only 1% in this category opted for ADPD. This suggests that while younger voters may be more volatile than older age groups, even here Labour retains an edge over its competitors. One reason could be that a segment of younger voters are more likely to appreciate social reforms like the proposed decriminalisation of cannabis.

Another reason is that the PN is not considered trustworthy enough on issues like the environment where Labour may by facing problems with another segment of younger voters.

But it could also be a reflection of the strength of Labour’s corporate image, a strong albeit manipulative online presence, and an identification with Labour’s aspirational message, which departs from the party’s more communitarian past.

In contrast, the survey indicates that Labour is facing its greatest problem among the 36-50 age group, where both Grech and the PN enjoy a small advantage over Abela and Labour. This may reflect the greater insecurities and anxieties faced by middle-aged voters in the middle of their working life and a greater likelihood of them experiencing the negative financial impact of the pandemic.

It remains to be seen whether this shift among middle-aged voters is a statistical fluke or represents a new trend among a category, which includes parents struggling to make ends meet. If the trend is sustained it may well signify a reversal of fortunes considering Labour’s historic role in offering this category greater stability and support.