[ANALYSIS] Five reasons the polls are seriously bad news for the PN

Bad polling can’t be blamed entirely on the PN’s internal divisions: almost 10% of PN voters in 2017 said they trust Muscat, and 5% will vote Labour

The problem for Adrian Delia is that the PN keeps losing voters rather than recovering those who shifted to Labour before the 2013 and 2017 general elections
The problem for Adrian Delia is that the PN keeps losing voters rather than recovering those who shifted to Labour before the 2013 and 2017 general elections

1. A tenth of 2017 PN voters prefer Muscat

The two surveys published over the weekend show that between eight and ten per cent of voters who had voted for the Busuttil-led PN in 2017 now trust Muscat more than Delia.

While internal strife between Delia’s new way and the party’s old guard can be blamed for the fact that nearly half of PN voters refrain from choosing between the two leaders, this cannot explain why one in every ten of the PN’s already restricted 2017 cohort now trust Muscat than their own party leader.   

This shows that apart from the “Daphne crowd” which shuns Delia for not being hard enough on Muscat, the party is at risk of losing a segment which has been seduced by the Labour leader.

READ MORE MaltaToday Survey | PN grows, Delia sinks in General Council week

In fact the polls suggest that despite lingering doubts on Delia, the party is actually regrouping. One indication of this is that among those with a tertiary level of education, while only 16% trust Delia over Muscat, 41% will vote PN.  The problem for the PN is that it keeps losing voters rather than recovering those who shifted to Labour before the 2013 and 2017 general elections.  

2. One in 20 of PN voters would now vote Labour

5% of PN voters in 2017 would now vote PL. This suggests that half of those who trust Muscat more than Delia have definitively crossed the Rubicon and are now intent of supporting Labour all the way.  Moreover the other half may represent an opportunity for even more growth for Labour.

Indeed the party may be facing a third exodus. While the belligerent Busuttil managed to compensate some of the losses to Labour with some gains of his own (thanks to the Panama shocker), thus keeping the party’s results at 2013 levels, Delia does not manage to compensate further losses with any gains.

This particular statistic shows that even if Delia is removed and replaced by another leader who appeals to the more intransigent anti-Muscat faction, the PN may be in an even weaker position in luring that segment of its voters who have warmed up to the PL leader.  Delia may also be suffering from the Egrant legacy, which left a segment of PN voters disoriented.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has made Labour a natural party of government
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has made Labour a natural party of government

Now that Muscat has repositioned his party to the centre and in some instances in the centre-right may well reflect how the PL has come to represent the aspirations of a chunk of PN voters who see in Muscat’s party a reflection of the PN in its better times.

3. PN makes no inroads among Labour voters

Only 0.4% of PL voters in 2017 would vote for the PN.  Less than 1% of PL voters trust Delia more than Muscat. So Delia’s anti elitism mostly directed against the old guard in his own party, has not charmed any significant number of Labour voters.

Overall this suggests that not only is the party failing to attracts traditional PL voters but is unable to recover former PN voters who shifted to the PL before the 2013 and 2017 general elections.  

4. The PN is losing more votes to third parties

Third parties may not be making much of an overall impact scoring a miserable 1.5% nationally. But they are taking their toll on the PN.  The MaltaToday survey shows the PN losing 3.5% of its 2017 voters to the PD and AD. Of these 2.4% are going to the PD.

PD MP Marlene Farrugia in 2017
PD MP Marlene Farrugia in 2017

On the other hand the PL is only losing 0.4% of its voters to AD and none to the PD.  This shows that third parties are having absolutely no impact on the PL but are further draining strength from the PN.  

This may be surprising because as a big tent party with more votes to shed and a higher proportion of floaters in its ranks, the PL should be more vulnerable to third parties. Yet this could also be explained by the PD’s pre-2017 strategy of an alliance with the PN, which now acts as a mental block for PL-inclined voters toying with idea of voting for a small party.  

On the other hand AD, which retained it autonomy in 2017 and is more firmly positioned on the left, still lacks the vigour to aggressively compete for the Labour vote. Significantly despite their inherent weakness, the MT survey shows Labour losing as much votes to the Greens as it is losing to the PN. It may be interesting to see how Labour would fare if it faces a more aggressive challenge from its left flank, especially in view of growing social inequalities and anger on environmental issues.  

For while Labour has positioned itself well in the centre-ground to appeal to PN voters, its hold on progressives may wane, especially if it slows down on its civil liberties agenda – the redeeming factor for many liberal voters tuned off by Labour’s record on governance.

5. Joseph Muscat remains more popular than his party

Delia is now 11 points less popular than his own party, and Muscat is 12 points more popular than his party.  So Delia is more of a liability, while Muscat is his party’s best asset, and maybe it is his hold on voters that keeps his party holding the fort.

In fact the survey does expose signs of disgruntlement within Labour’s ranks.   A tenth of PL voters would not vote in the next MEP elections and a further tenth are still undecided. Indeed the PL has more voters intent on not voting (9.7%) than the PN (6.5%). If this is confirmed at the polls the PL would be facing some difficulties even if the party retains more of its 2017 votes thanks to the largest shift from the PN to the other parties.

But this disgruntlement evaporates the moment Labour voters are given a direct choice between Delia and Muscat. Between 95% (MaltaToday) and 98% (it-Torca) of PL voters in 2017 trust Muscat more than Delia, which means a category of disgruntled PL voters who might not even vote, ultimately trust Muscat’s leadership.

This suggests discontentment on a variety of issues which does not translate in questioning Muscat, making his replacement with a new leader a more problematic issue for the party. Will a new Labour leader be able to command the same authority among party voters, especially in that sector of voters who trust Muscat but are less keen on identifying themselves with the party?