[ANALYSIS] Underdog no more: Labour’s strong but tenuous lead

Surveys conducted by different polling agencies suggest the Labour Party is set to win by a significant margin of between 27,000 and 34,000 votes. The gap may even grow if PN voters are further demoralised. But faced by an ineffectual opposition can Labour sit on its laurels? James Debono reports

To rally supporters and ensure that they turn out to vote in droves, Joseph Muscat always emphasised that his party was entering the race as the “underdog”.

Despite polling high before MEP elections in 2014 and 2019, there were two reasons why Muscat’s claim seemed plausible.

In 2013, Labour had just won power after a quarter of a century of deeply entrenched PN rule. And despite inserting itself and its proxies in the country’s financial establishment, Labour was also pushing a socially liberal agenda which shocked the conservative establishment.

Even by 2019 Labour had only been in power for six years and Muscat could still conjure the idea of a sinister conspiracy by the country’s ‘establishment’ to dethrone him on the back of corruption allegations and the protest movement galvanised by the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Moreover, Muscat was also concerned by latent Euroscepticism in his own camp which could lower the turnout among his supporters in elections for the European parliament.

But it is now increasingly difficult for his successor, Robert Abela, to convey the same narrative of Labour being an underdog party 11 years after Labour first came to power. Today, the party is increasingly entrenched in the establishment and polls show the party is going strong, defying the laws of diminishing returns for parties who have been in power for more than a decade.

The latest MaltaToday survey shows that a significant decrease in non-voters from 37% in January to 23% in March. This movement catapulted Labour to a 29,000-vote advantage over the PN as the turnout increased to 77%.

A survey conducted by the Times of Malta conducted earlier in March showed Labour leading with an advantage of 34,000 votes with a turnout of 71%. A survey by Vince Marmara for it-Torċa conducted in January had also shown Labour leading by 27,000 votes.

One major disadvantage for Abela is that Labour is now perceived as a dominant party which offers economic stability and patronage, but which struggles to create the kind of enthusiasm that comes with being perceived as the underdog fighting an uphill battle to change the country.

In this sense, ever since abandoning plans to liberalise abortion laws in cases where the mother’s health is in jeopardy and legalising recreational cannabis, Abela’s platform seems devoid of the reformist edge which characterised Muscat’s Labour.

Abela’s greatest selling point is stability during a pandemic and global instability. It is no mean feat for sure but is it enough to shore up the enthusiasm required to make people go out and vote in an election where the country’s government is not at stake?

The higher the turnout, the greater the PL’s lead

So far, Abela’s risk averse strategy and balancing acts seem to be paying off in stemming the haemorrhage of votes to the non-voting camp. And with the opposition stuck in a rut, Abela’s main concern remains that of boosting the turn out.

Surveys are now showing a pattern; that the scale of Labour’s victory is proportionate to the turnout among its voters:  The higher the turnout among Labour’s 2022 voters, the greater the lead.

Therefore, at this stage what seems to be crucial for Abela, is ensuring a fifth consecutive ‘Labour super majority’ of more than 35,000 votes. He needs this kind of victory to re-energise his government and to confirm his standing as the party’s indisputable leader. In this sense his greatest opponent is not the PN but abstention.

One possible favourable scenario for Abela is that just as happened in the 2022 general election, a higher percentage of former PN voters will eventually stay at home than PL voters.

This is not a far-fetched scenario considering that the latest MT survey shows an equal proportion of PL and PN voters in 2022 abstaining (14%). Moreover, with polls showing an imminent Labour super majority, a segment of PN voters may be even more tempted to abstain, possibly in the hope of forcing a change in the opposition.

In fact, PN voters angry at the status quo in their party may well choose to deliver a blow to the party in the hope that this would set in motion a radical reform in the opposition.

Still Labour also faces several obstacles which stand in the way of its super majority.

Labour’s ageing problem and the Metsola factor

Voting Labour is no longer the ‘cool’ choice of the younger generation even if the Opposition’s standing among younger voters remains abysmal. What is clear from surveys is that among under 50-year-olds, Labour’s greatest enemy is abstention.

The latest MaltaToday survey shows that only 35% of 16- to 35-year-olds intend voting Labour in the forthcoming mid-term election. On the other hand, 34% intend to abstain while only 27% will vote PN. At 38% Labour fares just a little better among those aged between 36 and 50, amongst which 33% intend not voting and 25% intend voting PN.

Moreover, a relative majority of 16- to 35-year-olds (43%) trust neither of the two political leaders, while 41% trust Abela and just 16% trust Grech.

What surveys do not tell us is whether this abstention is fuelled by disenchantment, rebellion or sheer indifference to politics in general.   

The greatest fear for Labour is that that this critical mass of non-voters may eventually move towards the opposition in a way which would help it narrow the gap.

This seems unlikely in the present context, although one cannot exclude that some of these voters including middle of the road voters may be tempted to vote for Roberta Metsola, whom they may perceive as a jolt to the system.   

But this depends on how far Metsola will be damaged by the PN’s toxic brand and by Labour’s constant attempts to depict her as the foremost representative of the PN establishment.

The survey also shows relatively high rates of abstention among the tertiary educated (29%) and the post-secondary educated (30%), which traditionally leaned in favour of the PN.  Moreover, on a regional level the highest abstention rate is recorded in the PN leaning northern region where 27% intend to abstain.

A matter of class

Even more significant is the high abstention rate among middle and upper middle-class voters who have also traditionally leaned PN but amongst which Labour has made some inroads in recent years.

Abstention rises to 35% among those earning between €2,000 and €3,000 and to 50% among those earning €3,000 and €4,000.

These cohorts may well be a target audience for a resurgent centre-right party or third parties addressing post material concerns.

Up for grabs

In short, among committed voters Labour scores a remarkable 53%. This depends on non-voters remaining parked in no men’s land. For when non-voters are taken into account, Labour’s share of the vote falls to around 40%.

And while in the next weeks Labour may benefit from an increase of abstention among former PN voters whose morale is at an all-time low, the PL will not be resting on its laurels.

Abela’s party will do everything in its power to prevent the PN and Metsola from making inroads among younger, more educated and more affluent voters - the categories which are still up for grabs.