The headlines of yesterday’s Sunday Times and Malta Today political surveys at face value appear contradictory. If you expect from polls what some expect from tarot cards you risk being misled. Polls are tools and one must learn to use them if they are to work for one.
There’s much in the two studies which is consistent.
Robert Abela’s grip on the Labour Party is shaky. He may recover some of his losses in due course. Bar a solid Parliamentary rebellion he has four years to reassert himself. But he also has four years to fuck up again and any one his many future errors could prove fatal to him. He is, at best, error prone: consider the abortion U-turn, the Sofia inquiry U-turn, the trip to Sicily in the wrong time, and that’s just in a few weeks.
Circumstances are unlikely to be kind to Robert Abela over the next four years either. After the 10th year of a government people are less forgiving. Cheap excuses such as Miriam Dalli blaming this year’s catastrophic power cuts “on the disaster the Nationalists left us (10 years ago)” no longer work. The real consequences of the short-termism policies of Muscat’s Labour are starting to be felt. Paradise is burning up.
The two surveys also show that the Labour Party’s command of the electorate’s majority is slipping. More people who voted Labour since 2013 are now unwilling to say they’ll vote Labour again. That’s not to say they won’t vote Labour come another election. Indeed, one probable difference between the two survey results is what assumptions the analysts are making about how people who won’t answer how they’ll vote next might actually behave if an election were to be called now.
But no election is being called now. It’s less important to debate who’d win an election tomorrow (since we’re not going to have one) and more important to understand why someone who voted Labour last year would refuse to confirm their intention to a pollster right now.
Their silence is no determining indicator they’ll be voting for someone else or even that they’ll abstain. But it’s an indicator of their mood, perhaps also an indicator of what they think about the Labour government. They don’t love it enough to want to say so aloud. They no longer love it as much as they used to. That means there’s a breakdown of communication between the Labour Party and some of its voters. There’s disaffection and malcontent. There’s a distance, a new gap. In politics you’d call that an opportunity.
It’s the space where the opposition should be working, identifying street by street the people who are no longer as committed to confirming Labour as they once were. If enough of them could be turned, the opposition could come in with a fighting chance.
Here’s a third thing both surveys tell us. The PN is not doing that. For all I know it may be attempting to flirt with disaffected Labour voters but there’s no indication whatsoever that such an effort, if it is happening, is having any effect at all.
Formally speaking, the PN appears to be getting its act together. By and large, to the extent there is a message, the more embarrassing members of the PN Parliamentary group appear to be staying on that message. The flare-ups from the more chaotic, or the more right-wing, or the more viscerally-conservative elements, have somehow been contained and their public expression has become rarer. That could mean that work in the background to corral the disparate elements of the opposition into a semblance of coherence is having some effect.
The opportunity-grasping seems to have improved as well. Conduct at Parliament’s public accounts committee has been effective and pressure on the government is felt by them as by anyone watching. The PN’s handling of the Jean Paul Sofia story was cohesive and effective. The party media did the job of sharpening the argument, the Parliamentary group cornered Robert Abela in a tactical disaster (for him), and they retained dignity and a show of empathy which over the past several years was a skill the PN appeared to have lost. They may have found it again.
These are essential improvements to a Party that hopes to win an election. It needs to look cohesive, focused, determined, and disciplined. It needs to be present in the issues that matter, to articulate people’s thoughts for them, to provide leadership and focus to resistance to government mismanagement or worse.
The PN’s regained ability to do its job is all fairly new and there is no guarantee they’ll manage to sustain this. Four years is time enough to perfect their methods and earn the public’s respect again. But four years is also a long time for some closet fascist loon on the PN benches to think it’s a good time to attract attention to themselves and bring the whole project back to square one.
Let’s be optimistic. Let us assume that in terms of political presence in opposition, the PN reaches back to the levels of intensity of Simon Busuttil’s battles before the 2017 general election. Let us allow for the possibility that the party’s messaging, its organisation, its mobilisation, and its communications apply the sort of pressure on the government as it had before the Party spun itself into chaos and internecine strife.
It didn’t win in 2017, did it? Political cohesion and determined pressure on the government are essential to an election victory but if that election proved anything it is that cohesion and pressure are insufficient to secure electoral results.
It is just not enough for Bernard Grech to hold the Party together to avoid excessively public expressions of division. Two more elements are necessary, harder to secure even, than not looking like a mess.
The first element is that the PN needs a political program, an agenda which is both inspiring and feasible in the context in which we are. Nostalgia for times when Malta’s population was smaller and whiter, and buildings were lower and brighter, is not a useful foundation for a political program unless that program is to turn back the clock. I doubt that’s going to be anyone’s feasible political manifesto.
Complaining about the population explosion and the destructive property creep is a good start, but just that, a start. What happens next? What are the PN’s solutions. What are its choices. Who will it be saying no to, why, and what will they do about the hurt their rejections will cause?
Robert Abela’s polls are in freefall because the public can now see the gulf between the praise he has for himself and his real-world abilities. Bernard Grech’s polls are stagnant because the public cannot even see what he claims to be able to do.
He can give a good speech and he can outmanoeuvre the government in Parliament and he can speak kindly to a citizen in need. That’s all well enough. But can he draw up an economic program and steer it through. Can he use the tools available to a public administration to steer us through the impact of global warming on our economy? Can he slash waiting time in traffic jams and in hospital waiting rooms? Can he reduce the failure rate of students sitting for Maths exams? Can he guarantee an energy supply to meet the country’s needs?
Bernard Grech needs to provide confident answers to these questions. He must show that he’s surrounded by the expertise he will need to fulfil his promises, and, he must actually take the time to draw up those promises.
And then there’s the third pillar. The battle for convincing the public must be taken by the PN back to the streets. I wrote after the 2017 election in one of my first ever blog posts that the PN had abandoned that battlefield sometime in the mid-1990s and left the streets for Labour to bustle in alone.
This takes me back to that respondent to the surveys published on Sunday who voted Labour in 2022 but won’t commit to voting Labour again. That voter is not going to be turned by a smart Parliamentary quip on TV by Bernard Grech. He’s unlikely to be turned by a thought-through manifesto published by Dar Ċentrali. That voter is only a realistic prospect if Bernard Grech or someone clearly allied and identified with Bernard Grech speaks to him face to face between now and the next general election and convinces them to vote for change.
Yesterday’s surveys agree on one thing above anything else. The political future of this country is available for the PN to transform. A survey, however, cannot make up for the PN’s failures to understand that and to understand what it must do to fill that space and be of use to this country again. Only the PN can answer those questions and when it does so and if the public likes what it hears, survey results will become clearer.