Ashcroft’s poll of Lib Dem battleground seats: incumbency is alive and well but 2015 will be a survival election for the party

by Stephen Tall on September 29, 2014

Tory peer and pollster Lord Ashcroft has published his latest set of constituency findings. He polled some of the key Lib Dem / Tory and Lib Dem / Labour battlegrounds in the summer – he’s now followed that up by looking at a further 22 seats. Of these, 2 are Lib Dem targets, 15 the party is defending against the Tories, and 5 against Labour. You can see the full results here [PDF].

Here are the headline findings:

  • Of the 20 Lib Dem-held seats polled, the Lib Dems would retain just 6.
  • The Tories would gain 7 and Labour would gain 4. The other 2 would be a tie (though actually a further 5 are statistical ties within the margin of error).
  • The Lib Dems would win neither of their two targets.
  • There are a couple of important caveats that should be noted.

    First, like all polls, these are are snapshots, not predictions. There is still seven months to the next election.

    Secondly, though Lord Ashcroft asks specifically about how voters would cast their ballot in their own constituency – the tendency of Lib Dem MPs to buck the national tend is a well-established phenomenon – he does not name the candidates. I’m not sure what difference this would make, but it’s not hard to imagine that, say, in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, naming Simon Hughes as the Lib Dem candidate would further boost the Lib Dem vote. In Watford, one of the two targets polled, the Lib Dems’ selection a few days ago of the popular elected Mayor Dorothy Thornhill, will almost certainly have an impact not picked up here. (More on this “incumbency effect” below.)

    And thirdly, Lord Ashcroft’s polls have not yet been tested by a general election – his weekly national polls fluctuate much more than do other pollsters’.

    Those caveats inserted, Lord Ashcroft’s polling data deserves to be taken seriously notwithstanding his own political leanings.

    One aspect that it re-inforces is the importance to the Lib Dems of the incumbency effect. When asked how they would vote in a general election, just 20% named the Lib Dems in the Lib Dem / Tory battlegrounds. Yet asked how they would vote in their own constituency 32% said they would vote for the Lib Dem candidate. A similar boost was recorded in the Lib Dem / Labour battlegrounds: 18% would vote Lib Dem in a general election, but 28% would vote for their local Lib Dem candidate.

    ashcroft - ld seats incumb boost - sept 2014

    I’ve had a look at all 22 seats and ranked them according to this incumbency effect – ie, the difference between national and constituency voting intentions. This is shown in the chart above. Two seats in particular stand out: Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) and Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow). Lloyd will probably benefit further from what’s known as the ‘sophomore surge’, the tendency of first-term MPs to increase their popularity when they stand for re-election. Burstow, though, has been elected four times already which makes his and the local party’s performance especially impressive.

    Those bright spots noted, the overall findings show what a tough gig the next election will be for the party. Though none of these seats are ‘safe’, they are all areas which, in normal times, the party would hope and expect to hold. However, we aren’t in normal times. With the party’s national support at least halved since 2010, it is clear that 2015 will be, as Tim Farron has coined it, a “survival election”.

    * 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.