Saturday, 20 December 2014

What those Ashcroft polls tell me

Over the past year, readers, you may have been paying attention to polls released by Michael Ashcroft, aka Lord Ashcroft.

I have as well, sometimes, although it is only know that I will be analysing these recent Ashcroft polls (i.e. polls conducted within the last six months, in which the Green Party has been steadily rising in support, where the gap between Conservatives and Labour has been closing, and where the Liberal Democrats' support is reaching its nadir and not getting any lower overall) to give my thoughts.

1. The Green Party is taking votes from the Liberal Democrats-but their level of strength varies quite widely in constituencies the Liberal Democrats hold or have strength in. Why?

Analysis of Con-LD marginals, LD-Lab marginals, and three way marginals (rather rare) by Ashcroft polls shows that in south west seats, especially those that have a latent 'green' nature (St Ives, for example). the Liberal Democrat vote is shifting reasonably well to the Green Party, because the Liberal Democrats in government have not acted like liberals. The Green Party, by contrast, is the most socially liberal and progressive of the UK's five largest parties which contest elections across Great Britain.

Many university seats were once held by the Conservatives (most of the time) before the 1990s, possibly because of the aspirational nature of the academic vote. Bristol West, Cambridge, and Cardiff Central, which all have a high student population, were all once often represented by Conservative MPs. (In fact, Bristol West had continuous Conservative representation from 1885 until their 1997 rout) Oxford was also frequently represented by Conservative MPs, but the splitting of this seat from 1983 meant that Labour and the Liberal Democrats were able to gain much more concentration (many student voters live in Oxford East). The seats in question all went to Labour in 1992 or 1997, and then on to the Liberal Democrats in some cases (all three of the aforementioned seats have Lib Dem MPs at the moment).

However, the Green Party is not polling nearly as well in places which have Liberal Democrat strength but are much more suburban and middle-class in character; places like Cheadle, Eastleigh, and Sutton and Cheam also lack a substantial student/youth vote and conversely can often harbour voters more favourable to UKIP (which ironically helps the Liberal Democrats by undermining the Conservative vote). In these circumstances the Green Party has to try and win over more Labour voters, but Labour has in the long-term been squeezed heavily in some middle-class suburban areas making this difficult. In this type of LD-held seat the Green Party also does not have a strong base; for example in Cheadle, there has never been a Green Party candidate so far.

2. Why is UKIP polling well in constituencies on the coast in particular?

Many seaside resorts and coastal cities once had strong industries, but those industries have largely disappeared. The fishing and shipbuilding industries in particular have been in steep decline in Britain over the last 30 years, and the shift in economic sectors (spurred on by globalisation in some cases) within these constituencies has inevitably marginalised many former industrial workers. It has been cited that UKIP is winning many disaffected voters from blue-collar backgrounds, and these voters are easy to find in constituencies such as Great Grimsby and Great Yarmouth. Inland seats with a past of heavy industry such as steelworking, which now have above average unemployment, often have demographics which are also UKIP-friendly by the standards of safely Labour constituencies.

3. In what sort of seats will the Liberal Democrat vote take the heaviest hit?

Seats with heavy student populations, and where incumbent MPs are retiring. The Ashcroft poll of Redcar was particularly striking in this regard- it shows the Liberal Democrats at only 17% in Redcar compared to the 45% vote share they polled in the last general election-a drop of 28% and to third position (behind UKIP) from first. It was also shown that in the Ashcroft poll of Plymouth Sutton and Devonport (currently a Conservative-held 3-way marginal likely to fall to Labour next year), the Lib Dems were shown at a shockingly low (even for them) 5%-down from 24% in 2010. Ashcroft polls carried out in Manchester Withington and Norwich South regarding voting intention by constituency as early as July 2014 were already showing drops in the Liberal Democrat vote of 23% and 18% respectively (down from 44% to 21% and 29% to 11%, to be precise). The Liberal Democrats polled in fifth place in the Norwich South Ashcroft poll, and they currently hold this seat!

4. What is behind the fact that Labour are ahead in polls of some crucial Con-Lab marginals but not others?

It is not just the variable levels of UKIP support that are behind this fact-the relative prosperity of these seats should be taken into account. Warwick and Leamington is relatively prosperous among marginal seats, and even when Labour held it the Conservative vote share was rather strong (it never went lower than 38%)-there are also not that many Lib Dem votes to squeeze in that seat. Other Con-Lab marginal seats such as Ealing Central & Acton, Stevenage, and South Swindon either have many Lib Dem votes to squeeze (they are more likely to go to Labour in areas without a good Green presence) or have enough UKIP potential to significantly split the Conservative vote; Stevenage is a prime example of this. UKIP has not performed that well in Hertfordshire locally (it only has one district council seat and no county council seats) but it has nevertheless been decisive in causing many Conservative wards to flip to Labour in many areas of Hertfordshire.

I hope you find my analysis of the story behind the results of these Ashcroft polls worthwhile :)

Regards, Alan.

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