Can the PL recover?

The Labour Party must, once and for all, close the 2013-2017 chapter. It was a chapter of great economic and civil progress, but a disaster in good governance and ethics.

The outcome of the elections for the European Parliament has rightly been described as a seismic result.  While both major parties have celebrated, there is absolutely no doubt that both have won and lost.  They both need to learn some lessons.  The one which takes them to heart and changes direction will stand a better chance of winning the general election in three years’ time.

As far as the PN is concerned, it has won a third seat and that is a considerable win.  It can also celebrate because the gap between it and the PL has shrunk.  But it has still not won back those who left the flock in 2013, let alone convinced others   ̶   including independents   ̶   that it has the nous to govern.  The huge reduction in the electoral gap was mostly due to Labour’s own failings.

Over the last two decades, the PN’s share of the total vote has fluctuated between 39.8% in 2004 and 43.7% in 2017.   Its nadir was in 2019, with a share of 37.9%.  So, this year’s share of 42.0% is an improvement but only a whisker over that in 2022.  This means that, despite the PL’s recent difficulties, it has not really made a breakthrough.

As to the PL, it won in spite of the fact that in this election its share of the total vote was the lowest in half a century.  During the whole period between 1971 and 2022, its share never went below 46%.   Now it is down to 45.3% and that has shattered the aura of invincibility it had built up.

Pollsters with egg on their face

Last Saturday’s upset was made possible by a combination of abstentions and undecided voters who kept their intentions close to their chests.  As a result, the pollsters have come out of this with egg on their face.   I had already warned that the imputation systems being used by Vincent Marmarà and the Times of Malta were not necessarily fool-proof. This is because, though imputation models have the advantages of giving plausible values to partial non-responses in electoral surveys as well as in preserving known relationships between variables, they may also introduce false relationships between the reported data by creating “consistent” records that fit the preconceived models.  This can be particularly risky when the non-response from those polled is not random.  Another risk is that imputation models can go very wrong when the variables are not stable over time – in the case of this election, it was the high percentage of undecided voters.  I think that Vincent Marmarà had this in mind when he explained why his survey got it wrong.

The pollsters now have to go back to the drawing board and find out how they can refine their models.  Of course, both the PL and PN, who were relying on these polls, were caught with their pants down.  Perhaps, they should use the old method of keeping their ears to the ground, so that they can complement the polls with anecdotal evidence.

What went wrong for the PL?

The Prime Minister has already said that he will give attention to the message the voters have sent.   Having used the Maltese word “nisma’”, I am not sure whether he meant “hear” or “listen”.   There is a huge difference between them, the former indicating the involuntary receipt by the brain of sounds uttered by somebody, whereas the latter involves a voluntary action whereby one makes conscious efforts to understand the sound once it reaches the brain.  One would hope it will be the latter.

But what went wrong for the PL?  Going into all the possible reasons would entail a lot of research, analysis, and a lengthy report.  This is not the place for them.  On the other hand, I must say that some of the analysis and comments on current affairs that I have made in recent months now look prophetic.  I won’t bore you by repeating them   ̶   just look up my opinion pieces.

One mistake the PL strategists must avoid is to think that it boils down to what they sometimes call “petty” requests by voters for some favours which weren’t granted.  In a frenetic last-minute attempt to correct some of the derision with which many of these requests were treated, the power of incumbency was practised on a significant scale.  Good job it did.  Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate it was counter-productive, as a good number of voters concerned were so pissed-off with being repeatedly put off that, even when their requests were granted, their vote was equivalent to a “sod you” message.

Another mistake   ̶   and this one has already occurred   ̶   is to think that the impressive economic growth generated under the Labour Government guarantees the voting result.  This attitude is based on the notion that, if voters compare what their situation was prior to 2013 with what it is now, they have no alternative but to be eternally grateful to Labour.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Voters have a very short memory.  Like a day is too long in politics, a decade is too long for voters.  They soon become accustomed to improvements as the new normal and when the normal stays put or even deteriorates slightly, they become seriously pissed off.  This applies particularly to the middle class, about which I have written at length and will still do. 

Thus, I don’t know who is the bright guy who told the Prime Minister that removing income tax on incomes under €1,000 per month is a measure aimed at the middle class.  For God’s sake, look at the statistics.  Even the lower middle class earns more than that, let alone the middle class proper or the upper middle class.  In reality, the measure applies to the working class.  The reaction of the middle class to the announcement was that the government had lost the plot.

Conditioned by the middle class

Today’s politics are conditioned by the middle class.  All over the world, political parties, be they socialist or conservative, have made the middle ground the battlefield for their action.  It reflects the fact that most people in any advanced economy are middle class, so that’s where the most votes are.  But, more than that, it concerns the fact that surveys show that many people actually believe they belong to the middle class even when, in fact, they do not.  Recent surveys in Malta confirm that it has happened here as well, and so it is no surprise that both political parties have jostled to occupy this ground.

The middle class in Malta accounts for 32% of the workforce, and if one extends that to the lower middle class and the upper middle class, the percentage goes up to 79%.  Since 2013, the PL has made the middle class its bellwether for the societal changes which it must lead to ensure electoral success.  It had worked brilliantly.  Until now.

But when high inflation hits, the middle class is particularly hard hit, as it sees prices increase faster than their income.  One might say that the same has happened to low-income households.  There is one difference, though.  When the middle class perceives that it is harder to live the same lifestyle as previous middle-class generations did, it bays for blood.

I believe that this is another factor that accounts for the PL’s loss of votes.  As a left-of-centre person I am not for one moment prescribing that a Labour government should forget its roots among the working class and low-income people.  All I am saying is that, if the PL loses the middle class and the lower middle class, it cannot win elections. 

Soft issues

However, economics is not the only battleground for middle class voters.  There are also what one might call soft issues.  They concern what the middle class expects from governments and state institutions.  If the PL wants to listen to a message about this, it should have done so a long time ago.  All the surveys were saying it loud.  The middle class wants better governance, less corruption, more transparency, more respect for the rule of law. 

All was so very promising in 2013 and one could say that some positive things were done.  But the government soon lost its way.  Since then, we have been mired in a litany of ills.  A powerful minority in the country have used (and abused) power to enrich themselves and their friends (thank you Dr Alfred Sant for confirming this quite recently).

PL, please change course

I appeal to the PL leadership to change course.  As I have said in previous opinion pieces, corruption is not only a hidden tax on poor and low-income households, but it is the antithesis of socialist and left thinking.  Additionally, various international studies have amply demonstrated that corruption reduces economic growth and reduced the scope for social welfare.  Corruption perverts the State and its institutions, civil society, and democracy.  It is enemy Number One of the Republic. 

I come now to how power should be used.  Again, the 2012 electoral manifesto promised one thing in 2013 and delivered something else.  I am referring to dialogue in all its forms and with all stakeholders.  It is not that there is a complete lack of it; that would be contrary to the truth.  But there’s certainly not enough.  All too often, consultation with stakeholders and civil society is inexistent or too little too late.  The government has had to make a couple of u-turns because of that. 

Last, but not least.  The PL must, once and for all, close the chapter on the period 2013-2017.  It was a chapter of great economic and civil progress, but a disaster in good governance and ethics.  The PL has had its father figures and they should be admired for the good they did.  But it is not that it is beholden to them.  Its precious values should always take precedence over private interests.  I do not need to go into specifics: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 14:35). 

On a final note, some might think this is too hard-hitting.  But I write as one who is genuinely interested in reform, not in destruction.  I also write as one who does not want to live in a virtual bubble or echo-chamber.  By the way, that’s something else that the PL should ditch; there are simply too many people licking asses when what they are being paid for is to contribute effectively to delivery of the government’s agenda.

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina/Reuters

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