Lord Ashcroft’s much-heralded new series of opinion polls couldn’t have started with more of a bang – a 2% Tory lead, the first in a national poll for two years.
1. Labour people shouldn’t dismiss this as a “poll by a Tory”. Ashcroft is obsessed by polling accuracy. He might want to use the intelligence his polling gathers for partisan reasons, but he has no interest in generating dodgy numbers, and considerable personal pride in his reputation as an accurate psephologist. His recent political orientation has been far from tribally Tory, with a thinly veiled contempt for Cameron and even an appearance at a Fabian fringe meeting. His previous polling was rather damaging to Tory morale so there is no pattern of bias. In any case within hours an ICM poll, seen as the gold standard, showed a 2% Tory lead as well.
2. The Ashcroft poll, being first in the series, can’t show any changes, but the ICM one does – a 6% drop in the Labour vote, a 1% rise for the Tories, a 1% rise for the Lib Dems and a whopping 4% rise for UKIP.
3. This makes it more explicable. I wouldn’t have been able to explain the Tory vote going up 4% because nothing in the relative positioning or standing with the public of Labour and the Tories has objectively changed since last month. Ashcroft’s poll says 67% of voters say there is no recovery or they are not benefiting from it. But UKIP cutting through beyond their ex-Tory base into Labour’s makes sense. They are basically saying things lots of voters agree with, and the more attention they get because of the Euro elections and the mud being slung at them over the crazier or more obnoxious things their candidates say, the more people will notice them and vote for them. I wrote last week about a strategy for stopping this.
4. If you want to cheer yourself up, the Ashcroft and ICM polls were phone polls and YouGov’s online poll showed a 7% Labour lead yesterday, the highest since March. But … online polls were less accurate than phone polls in 2010. And if you are a serious electoral strategist you plan based on the worst case polling not the best case.
5. Labour can still win. We would nearly get an overall majority based on a uniform swing like those in the two polls with 2% Tory leads. But the legitimacy issues if we won on seats but lost on votes wouldn’t help a new government that had to take tough decisions. We can’t just try to win on points. We know that to really win we need to aim big – for 40% – and Marcus Roberts’ paper on this remains the best guide to how to build that vote share.
6. This is extremely serious – it is absolutely not what you want the polls to be doing a few days before the last big mid-term set of elections in the cycle.
7. But the worst thing we can do is panic. It never helps anyone and almost invariably creates a downwards spiral of infighting. In an election campaign you need to keep trying to set the agenda, as Ed did with his GP waiting times announcement today, not allow other parties, particularly asymmetric threats from parties like UKIP, to set it.
8. Ashcroft’s poll says nothing is settled about the General Election – 52% of voters are open to switching party between now and then.
9. There will be lots more hair-raising moments like this over the next year as we head towards one of the closest elections ever and try to break every historical rule by only being a one term opposition. The challenge for all Labour campaigners is to stay calm and react professionally.
10. The Ashcroft poll I am really interested in is his upcoming poll of marginal seat voting intentions because no one else is doing those.