The poll findings which should encourage (some) Lib Dems and worry Labour

by Stephen Tall on October 5, 2013

I highlighted during Lib Dem conference season an interesting finding from Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling of marginal seats:

Lord Ashcroft ā€“ the former deputy Tory chairman and the man who spends more on polling than all the political parties combined ā€“ released his latest findings this week. 13,000 voters in the 40 Conservative seats with the smallest majorities were surveyed, including eight where the Liberal Democrats came second in 2010: Watford, St Albans, Oxford West & Abingdon, Harrogate & Knaresborough, Camborne & Redruth, Truro & Falmouth, Newton Abbot and Montgomeryshire.

Remember: these are seats which are potential Lib Dem gains in 2015. The result? Overall, across the eight seats, the Lib Dems are just 3% behind the Conservatives, 32% to 29% (with Labour third on 18%). The reason? Not hard to guess: Ukip, which is polling 12%. None of us know if the rise of Ukip is a bubble, or a permanent feature. But Iā€™m struck by the number of senior Lib Dems who tell me they expect to make gains (plural) from the Tories at the next election (though not necessarily net gains from them).

He’s now published the text of his presentation at the ConservativeHome conference fringe in Manchester this week — well worth reading in its own right — which links to some of the charts of his findings. First, here’s the poll result above:

ashcroft poll - ld-con marginals - sept 2013

As you can see above, the Tory share of the vote has plunged by 12% (and yes, the Lib Dems are also down by 8%, though we’re more used to that downwards pressure between elections and will be optimistic about squeezing down that Labour vote). You might expect that Tory drop is pretty much a direct transfer to Ukip — but you’d be wrong. In fact, the Lib Dems have benefited almost as much as Ukip from Tory defections in these eight marginal Conservative-held seats:

ashcroft poll - con-ld defectors - sept 2013

Overall, this is encouraging news for the Lib Dems. These are seats held by the Tories and we are still 18 months from the election: if the party can get its act together and is able to re-inforce the message to Labour-leaning voters that it’s a straight choice between the Lib Dems and Conservatives in their area then there are undoubtedly gains to be made.

In seats where the party came third last time, the picture is a lot less rosy: our vote share has halved (in line with the national polls) in Conservative/Labour marginals:

ashcroft poll - con-lab marginals - sept 2013

However, the poll finding which stuck me most — and which if I were a Labour guy would have me reaching for the smelling salts — is this one on economic trust:

econ trust - ashcroft poll - oct 2013

I know some Labour commentators (such as my New Statesman friend George Eaton) take solace in the fact that their party won in 1997 even though the Tories led in economic competence. But times were very different then.

The Tories were at the fag-end of their 18-year stretch of uninterrupted rule; the electorate was knackered by their bumbling and disunity; and, with the economy recovered, folk felt safe to sample Tony Blair’s centrist social democracy.

Today, Labour is still blamed more for the cuts than the Coalition; the financial collapse happened on New Labour’s 13-year-long watch; and austerity will continue be with us for the whole of the next parliament irrespective of the victor.

Though the Tories have gone out of their way over the last three years to narrow their base of support, I find it hard to imagine Labour winning a majority when it’s so distrusted on the issue most central to voters’ lives.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.