Many readers of the Blog will be familiar with the marginal constituency polling that Lord Ashcroft has been conducting for some time. This is a thoroughly welcome initiative. Although Lord Ashcroft is hardly the first person ever to poll in marginal constituencies, previous efforts (as well as this week’s ComRes poll) have generally involved a standard-sized sample spread across 30-50 marginal seats. While this may tell you something about general patterns across marginal as a whole, the individual sample sizes within each seat are too small to indicate anything much about any particular constituency. Polls within individual seats have been both rare and normally had smaller sample sizes, making them less reliable. Lord Ashcroft has been innovative in conducting simultaneous polls, with proper sample sizes, in significant numbers of individual seats – thus giving us good-quality information about both individual seats and the broader picture across the marginals that will likely decide the outcome of the 2015 general election.
Much of Lord Ashcroft’s past efforts have focused on the key Labour-Conservative battleground, such as the seats narrowly won by the Conservatives in 2010. Most of the seats are in England, but as part of this work there has been a previous poll of Cardiff North. There was also a more recent one of Cardiff Central when his Lordship extended the scope of his polling to look at other types of seats. In line with the general pattern in Lord Ashcroft’s polls, these polls indicated Labour doing slightly better in the marginal than suggested by the national polls. If such patterns continued right through to polling day this would be an important advantage to the Labour party.
Yesterday, Lord Ashcroft published a new set of polls in marginal seats. Here he was mainly concentrating on Liberal Democrat-Conservative marginals, with a particular focus on sets currently held by the Lib-Dems but potentially under threat from the Tories in light of the former’s current dire ratings in the national polls. For the Liberal Democrats, constituency-level performance in the next general election is perhaps more important than for any other party. We know that, barring some miraculous recovery in the last few months of this parliament, the national vote share of the Lib-Dems is likely to be much lower than it was in 2010. The party are pinning their hopes on being much stronger in the seats that they currently hold, often on the basis of popular and active local representatives. If they can buck the national swings in 35-40 seats, the Lib-Dems may still emerge from the general election as a significant parliamentary force. That would give them something to build on as they look to recover their popularity. If the national swings hold true even across seats the party hold now, they face near wipeout in May.
Among the seats polled by Lord Ashcroft in this latest batch was one in Wales: Brecon and Radnor. This has been held by the Liberal Democrats since 1997. At the last general election, the result was:
Liberal Democrats: 46.2%
Plaid Cymru: 2.5%
A margin of lower than 10 percentage points looks vulnerable, given the Lib-Dems current poor poll ratings. On a uniform national swing, the most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll would project the Conservatives to gain Brecon and Radnor.
So what did Lord Ashcroft find? As with his previous polls, he reports several sets of findings. Two main voting intention questions are asked. The first is the standard:
“If there was a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?”
The second, which is an interesting innovation, is a question which tries to get respondents to focus on the particular dynamics of their constituency:
“Thinking specifically about your own parliamentary constituency at the next General Election and the candidates who are likely to stand for election to Westminster there, which party’s candidate do you think you will vote for in your own constituency?”
The polls also ask about likelihood to vote, and the main reported figures are weighted in relation to this.
In Cardiff North, the two different voting intention questions did not produce dramatic changes in the responses given; in Cardiff Central the constituency question improved the Lib-Dems’ position a little, but still left them some way behind Labour. Brecon and Radnor is rather more interesting. Here, first, are the responses to the ‘generic’ vote intention question:
Liberal Democrats: 18%
Plaid Cymru: 7%
These figures look dreadful for the Lib-Dems. On this standard question they lie in only joint third place, some fourteen points behind the Conservatives. If Lord Ashcroft’s poll had only included this question, we would, I think, all be talking about the Lib-Dems being on course to lose the seat by some margin.
Look, though, at the figures produced when respondents were asked the follow-up, constituency-specific question:
Liberal Democrats: 31%
Plaid Cymru: 8%
This is quite an astonishing turnaround. Now the Lib-Dems are actually in the lead – albeit by a closer-than-comfortable four points. The details of the poll show a significant proportion of Labour supporters on the ‘generic’ question, and several Greens, moving to the Lib-Dems when encouraged to think about the specific seat. Even a few Tories move in the Lib-Dems’ direction when prompted to think about the specific constituency. Such changes occur, we should be clear, without the specific names of the candidates, including the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP, actually being stated.
The evidence here is consistent with that in a significant number of the other seats polled by Lord Ashcroft. In many seats the Lib-Dems currently hold, and which they would lose on the sort of swings that the national polls are suggesting, prompting respondents to think seriously about their own constituency puts the Lib-Dems in a significantly healthier position.
Looking at the other parties, we see UKIP performing quite strongly in an area where they did very well in May’s European elections. However, at present they do not look likely to actually be threatening to win the seat. The oddity of the poll is to see Plaid Cymru’s support levels increasing on 2010 – in what can hardly be a target seat for them!
Overall, the evidence from Lord Ashcroft’s polling does not show that everything will be fine for the Liberal Democrats next year. Their activists and supporters will not need me to tell them that they still have a serious fight on their hands to remain a significant parliamentary force. But this evidence does at least indicate that in many of the constituencies the Liberal Democrats currently hold, including Brecon and Radnor, their prospects for success may be rather better than the national polling numbers would have you believe.