Lib Dem private polling v Lord Ashcroft’s polling (PLUS the sting in the tail for the party)

by Stephen Tall on March 10, 2015

times red boxI have a piece on today’s Times Red Box blog looking at Lib Dem prospects for this May’s election: Ignore the Liberal Democrats at your peril – and don’t write them off.

Here’s its premise:

There is a new fear which stalks the Liberal Democrat leadership. Forget unpopularity: we’ve grown used to that. For five years the party has suffered the slings and arrows of its outrageous fortune, thrust into a coalition government in the midst of the biggest financial crisis in a century. What worries party strategists now is something different, worse: being ignored.

And it is that, being ignored, which the party feels is unjust — in particular because its own private polling shows the Lib Dems doing much better in its target seats.

Now, a lot of commentators will see the words ‘private polling’ and raise an arch eyebrow before snarking that Mandy Rice Davis applies (“well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”). Fair enough. Take what follows with as much of a pinch of salt as you like.

What I find encouraging is the approach the party has taken. First, they’ve invested heavily in seat-by-seat polling, far more so than ever before — more than 120 polls commissioned to date, including multiple polls in some seats. There’s no way the party would’ve spent the rumoured £350k+ simply as a comfort blanket, or to try and get a couple of positive press stories. It’s been done so the party knows where to focus its scarce resources (including switching them away from seats when necessary) and to know which policies persuade which voters.

Secondly, they’ve taken a smart approach in their choice of questions. In his constituency polls, Lord Ashcroft asks a two-stage question: ‘Who would you vote for if there was a general election tomorrow?’, then ‘Thinking specifically about your seat, who would you vote for?’ It has already been shown what a difference that makes in Lib Dem-held seats: the value of MP incumbency. However, the Lib Dems’ polling goes beyond that. The party’s two-stage questions first prompt about the seat in a similar way to Lord Ashcroft’s second question. But then at the second stage the party names the candidates who’ll be standing and who’ll appear on the ballot paper. What that reveals is the extent of the personal support most Lib Dem MPs attract.

Lynne Featherstone‘s seat of Hornsey and Wood Green, in London, is a good example. When Lord Ashcroft polled it last September, he found the Lib Dems 13% behind Labour. The latest Lib Dem poll, published on Mark Pack’s blog here, finds Lynne just 3% behind. (Of course, the two polls were conducted months apart so the difference could just be down to chance — but I suspect the big difference is accounted for by Lynne’s personal vote.) A similar pattern is repeated in many Lib Dem seats, including in the South-West of England and Scotland, both areas where many pundits are quick to dismiss the Lib Dems as an entirely spent force.

There is, though, a sting in the tail for the party. This reliance on its MPs’ personal votes to inoculate it from the worst of the national swing is an unavoidable tactic at this election. But it is not a sustainable strategy. The party’s private polling reveals the strength of its MPs’ local brand. But it also lays starkly bare the weakness of the Lib Dems’ national brand.

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