Labour lead by a single point in the final Ashcroft National Poll of 2014, conducted over the past weekend. The party is down one point since last week on 31 per cent, with the Conservatives unchanged on 30 per cent. The Liberal Democrats are up one at 8 per cent, UKIP up three at 19 per cent and the Greens and the SNP each down one at 5 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.
Over the last few weeks in the ANP I have asked a series of questions about the outcome of the next election – what result people would most like to see, the results they most expected to see, and which of the smaller parties people would most and least like to become part of a coalition government.
With most polls as tight as they are, the odds point towards no party having an overall majority, and many foresee the prospect of complex coalition negotiations involving three or even more parties. Since, during the 2011 referendum one of the principal arguments in favour of first-past-the-post was that it produced decisive results and stable governments, this is perhaps as close as we are going to get to evidence that an electoral system can have a sense of humour.
Some have argued that, given the rise of smaller parties and the rise of UKIP, the Conservatives in particular would be in a better position today had Britain opted for the Alternative Vote. I decided to put this theory to the test and find out how different voters would list their first, second and third choices under AV today.
Perhaps not surprisingly, people’s first choices under the AV system were not much different from the standard FPTP voting intention question. Labour would take 33 per cent of first preferences, the Conservatives 30 per cent, UKIP 18 per cent, the Lib Dems 9 per cent and the Greens 6 per cent.
After all second and third preferences had been transferred, Labour ended up with 53 per cent and the Conservatives 47 per cent. This is a somewhat academic exercise since it treats the whole country as a single constituency, when in practice the transfers would take place seat by seat – but it does underline how closely matched the two largest parties are in public opinion.
The more interesting outcome of this exercise is to see how supporters of different parties listed their preferences. More than 19 out of 20 of those who said they would vote Labour or Conservative under FPTP named the same party as their first preference under AV, as did nine out of ten UKIP voters. (FPTP Lib Dems were slightly less likely to do so, but since there were so few of them it would be unwise to draw firm conclusions). No FPTP Labour or Conservative voters gave their first choice to UKIP under AV.
Those who named the Conservatives as their first choice under AV were more likely to give their second preference to UKIP (42 per cent of those naming a second party) than to anyone else – but notably, they were more likely to give it to the Lib Dems or Labour (53 per cent in total) than to UKIP.
Four in ten of those who named Labour as their first choice gave their second preference to the Lib Dems. The Greens were the next most popular destination for Labour second preferences (19 per cent), followed by UKIP (14 per cent) and the Tories (13 per cent).
Those who gave their first preference to UKIP were nearly twice as likely to name the Conservatives (51 per cent) as Labour (26 per cent) when it came to their second preference. In practice this may well vary between constituencies, but overall it suggests the Tories could have gained under the proposed new system, at least in comparison to where they are today.
One notable feature of these results is that the smaller parties did better in second preferences than first, and better in third preferences than in second. In practice this would be largely pointless, since it would mean these parties being eliminated early and never benefiting from the subsequent preferences declared for them. No doubt voters would get the hang of the system were it ever to be used in general elections – though this is an unlikely enough contingency, since I found only 35 per cent of people saying they would prefer this method, having tried it, to choosing a single candidate with an ‘X’ – hardly an advance on the 32 per cent who endorsed it in the referendum three and a half years ago.
The voters have chosen their system, and next May they will choose their parties. Whatever chaos ensues, let nobody say it doesn’t reflect the will of the people.
Visit LordAshcroftPolls.com for full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research and to sign up for news alerts.