By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC
Here is the text of the presentation I gave to at the ConHome fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this week. Scroll down to see the presentation slides and data from the new polling I unveiled.
“Comrades! … Sorry, that was last week.
What I mean to say is: Ladies and Gentlemen – fellow Conservatives – good afternoon and thank you for coming to the inaugural Conservative Home event of the 2013 Conservative Party Conference.
As I say in today’s edition of the excellent Conservative Home conference newspaper, I enjoyed my time in Brighton but nobody need worry that I am about to cross to the dark side.
In fact I came away from the Labour conference rather more optimistic about our own prospects than I have felt for some time. Ed Miliband made no real attempt to deal with Labour’s big negatives – that they are the party of welfare and cannot be trusted with the public finances. This suggests he has decided that, for the time being at least, he has all the support he needs and does not need to reach out any further to voters who are still considering the Tories.
If that really is the case, that does not mean we can afford to run a core vote strategy of our own. It means that with a broad appeal we have the opportunity to hold onto wavering Tory voters, and attract new ones. I am looking forward to hearing this week about the policies and message with which the party is planning to achieve that goal.
This afternoon I will present some new polling about the national picture, conducted immediately before the conference season to avoid any skewing effect from the coverage of the Labour and Lib Dem conferences. You may have seen some polling in the papers today which gives Labour a bounce, but we will see what the real effect is over the next few weeks.
I will also show some new analysis of my recent polling in marginal seats, which should help us understand the voters who supported us in 2010 but are currently reluctant to do so next time.
The first thing to say is that things are looking up. There have been improvements for the Conservatives in nearly all the important measures, including leadership, competence, having clear ideas and being a united party, while Labour have fallen back.
While this is obviously good news, in most cases it takes us back to where we were in the middle of last year, rather than to the heady days of 2010, such as they were.
The one exception to that is the question of being on the side of ordinary people, not just the better off. We have made very little progress here and lag further behind Labour and the Lib Dems than we did at the start of the year. This is clearly an area Labour intend to exploit, and we need to find ways of showing it’s true of the Tories too.
But while Labour’s heart may be in the right place, most voters still have reservations about them returning to government.
Even most of those in my poll who said they would vote Labour said the party had not yet made clear what they would do to improve things – though this may fall slightly now that Ed Miliband has unveiled his programme of price controls and land confiscation.
But around two fifths of those who currently say they would vote Labour also worry that a Labour government might spend and borrow more than the country can afford, and that the party has not learned the right lessons from its time in government.
These things suggest to me that Labour’s current vote is not firm – and as I say, Miliband all but ignored these problems in his speech last week.
It is also telling that one fifth of Labour voters say they disapprove of David Cameron as Prime Minister, but would still prefer him to Ed Miliband.
More broadly, two thirds of voters say they would prefer Cameron to Miliband. While 29 per cent say they are satisfied with Cameron’s performance, a further 37 per cent say they are dissatisfied but prefer him to the alternative. Only just over a quarter say they would rather see Miliband in Number 10.
Cameron is also the only leader whom people pick positive words and phrases to describe – particularly “stands up for Britain” and “determined”. A perception of being “out of touch” is the biggest downside.
For Ed Miliband, being “out of his depth” and “weak” are the dominant themes, as they have been throughout his leadership.
Having said that, when we ask this question in focus groups we do find that people are less likely than they used to be to say he is “weird”. Perhaps they are getting used to him.
I am sorry to say that poor Nick Clegg has all the negatives of Cameron and Miliband but without any of the positives, being both “weak”, “out of his depth”, AND “out of touch”.
When we ask how each leader would handle specific aspects of being Prime Minister – such as representing Britain abroad, or making the right decisions even when they are unpopular – Cameron trounces Miliband on all measures but one, and indeed has doubled his lead over the summer.
We will see in the weeks to come whether Miliband’s performance in Brighton will do anything to change perceptions – but given that many people’s initial reaction to him, after three years, is that “he’s not as good as his brother”, it doesn’t seem very likely.
When it comes to policy, things have also picked up for the Tories over the summer. We have pulled back ahead on welfare and immigration, as well as crime, on which we were almost neck-and-neck in June. The big exception remains the NHS, on which Labour now dominate. (This was an issue on which we managed to close the gap during the last parliament).
The news is particularly good on economic issues. We have opened a clear lead on the question of helping business to grow and recover, and steering the economy through difficult times.
Accordingly, Cameron and Osborne have established a decisive lead over Miliband and Balls on overall trust to manage the economy in the best interests of Britain.
This reflects an improvement in economic optimism, with voters now more likely to be positive than negative about economic prospects both for the country as a whole, and for themselves and their families.
All of these things are grounds for a degree of optimism in relation to the national picture… but the research in the marginal seats I published recently was more sobering.
In the 32 most marginal Conservative seats where Labour are second, Labour’s vote share has stagnated since 2011. Unfortunately, the Conservative share has eroded further, while UKIP’s has crept up to 11 per cent, compared to just 3 per cent in these seats at the last election.
This represents an 8.5 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour, enough to lose all 32 of them, plus 66 more if it were to be repeated in other Conservative-Labour contests.
Things are looking rather less bad in the eight most marginal seats we hold against the Lib Dems – though only because the Lib Dems’ vote share has fallen further than ours has. Again, UKIP’s vote share is three times what it was in 2010.
In both sets of seats, there is a clear relationship between the decline in the Tory vote and the rise of UKIP. But we must not make the mistake of thinking about this as a simple shift. Not all Conservative ‘defectors’ have gone to UKIP, and not all potential UKIP voters are former Conservatives.
In fact, in seats we are defending against Labour, only just over a quarter of Conservative Defectors now say they will vote UKIP.
Just under one fifth have gone to Labour, and nearly one third – the biggest single group – say they don’t know how they will vote.
Looking at the wider findings from the marginals poll we have identified the most important factors that separate 2010 Conservative voters who plan to vote Conservative again from those who don’t – whatever they say they will do instead.
In Conservative-Labour marginals, most of the factors that Tory defectors have in common are to do with the Conservative Party. They need reassuring that we are on their side, to feel we are clear about what we stand for and are taking the right decisions. They also need to be persuaded that Britain is heading in the right direction – and I am sure this will be a major element of the campaign.
But those who say they will vote UKIP have a completely different outlook from those who simply say they will not vote Tory again. There is some overlap between these two groups, of course. But the list of factors that distinguishes UKIP voters from others reveals that they are essentially none-of-above when it comes to parties, and hardly interested in any issues apart from immigration, Europe and defence.
In Conservative-Lib Dem marginals – extraordinary though it may seem – nearly as many Tory Defectors have gone to the Liberal Democrats as have gone to UKIP. Again, the biggest single group is the don’t knows.
Only 28% of Tory defectors have gone to UKIP in these seats – too many, but it is clear again that 2010 Conservative voters have not gone to Nigel Farage en masse.
Tory Defectors in seats we are defending against the Lib Dems have doubts about the party’s competence, clarity and values – whereas UKIP voters really are for “none of the above”, disliking all three parties, and being interested only in immigration, Europe and defence – though as I found in my previous research, most of those who are attracted to UKIP are not motivated by policy issues at all.
To conclude, despite all the numbers and analysis, this is not about chopping the electorate up into tiny segments. In fact it reinforces what I said at the beginning about the party’s need to have a broad appeal.
Conservative defectors – whether or not they have gone to UKIP, as most of them haven’t – want to know that we are in touch, have the right values, and offer a sense of grip and direction. But those things are not exclusive to wavering former Tories – they are what everyone needs to hear. I hope by the end of this conference they will have done so.