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Labour have taken a narrow lead in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. The party are ahead by a single point with 31 per cent, with the Conservatives on 30 per cent, UKIP up two points at 16 per cent, the Lib Dems unchanged at 9 per cent, and the Greens up two at 8 per cent.

The narrow margin for Labour echoes most recent published polls, but with a lower combined share for the two main parties. Could it be that voters have found the exchange of insults over donors and their tax arrangements an unappetising spectacle?

The parties and most leaders have fallen in most voters’ estimation since I last asked people to rate them last November. The biggest falls were for UKIP and Nigel Farage, and the Lib Dems were the only party to record a small increase. One possible explanation is that, as I have found in my qualitative research, people are beginning to look at the parties in terms of the general election and the choice of a government, and are asking what UKIP have to offer beyond their well-known positions on Europe and immigration. It was also notable that men gave substantially lower marks than women for all parties and leaders except UKIP (whose scores were similar) and Farage (who received a more negative rating from women than from men).

David Cameron remained the only leader to receive higher scores than his party. He also scored better among his own party’s supporters than Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg, though UKIP and Farage continued to achieve very high scores among their own voters.

The question neatly encapsulates the dilemma that many voters face over the next twelve weeks. Swing voters, who either say they don’t know how they will vote or that they may yet change their mind, prefer Cameron to Miliband but (by a greater margin) Labour to the Conservatives.

As for the Liberal Democrats, one of their major tasks will be to show that they have had a worthwhile impact in government and could do so again. I found nearly half (48 per cent) of all voters saying the party did not seem to have enough influence with the coalition – including two thirds of Labour and Lib Dem supporters and a majority (54 per cent) of swing voters. The proportion saying this had increased by eight points since I last asked the question in September. It is interesting to note that only one in five Conservative voters thought the Lib Dems had too much influence in government; more than three quarters thought the party had either the right amount of influence (49 per cent) or too little (28 per cent).

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This week’s focus groups with undecided voters took place in Loughborough and Sheffield Hallam. The identity of the sitting MPs was well known in both places, but it was not clear that a high national profile would necessarily be an advantage to either. Nicky Morgan was regarded as an assiduous local campaigner but some worried that her promotion to the Cabinet may have been a distraction to her first duty: “you get someone who says they will stand up for the local area, then they get promoted and they’re not interested”. One complained that “she moved here because it was a safe seat”, which will be news to the minister who as a candidate spent years campaigning in a constituency that Labour had held since 1997.

The Deputy Prime Minister also clearly makes his presence felt in Sheffield. (“Nick Clegg sent me a Christmas card,” said one participant. “Me too!” chimed in all the others.) But the discussion showed just how tough it is going to be to please disillusioned 2010 Lib Dem voters. These constituents credited the Lib Dems in government with the Pupil Premium, free school meals and the raising of the income tax threshold, as well as being a moderating influence on the Tories – all of which they praised, and all of which Clegg would claim as major Lib Dem achievements. But many could still not excuse the deal with the Conservatives, or the reversal on tuition fees: “he traded that for a ministerial car”. The argument that a junior coalition party inevitably has to take what it can get (and had indeed scored a number of successes that they themselves welcomed) was not enough for them because the promise to vote against the fee rise had been so public and unequivocal. What would he let them down on next time? The DPM has a fight on his hands.

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The women of Sheffield did not feel patronised by the hue of Harriet Harman’s campaign bus so much as bemused: “Why is she going round in a pink van?”. They were also doubtful about its purpose (“Is there a blue bus saying these are the issues for men, let’s go and talk to the men?”) and the slogan, which seemed more suited to a specialist dating agency (“Woman to Woman? That sounds like, er, something else”.) Still, as one lady observed, “it’s done its job, it’s on the national news”. I wonder if that is the view at Labour HQ.

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Our participants had found nothing about the row over HSBC and tax very enlightening or surprising. Though they questioned whether Lord Green should have been appointed a minister, nobody thought it much of a revelation that such a thing had occurred: “you just expect that’s what’s happening.” For some, though, it did underline what they saw as double standards on the part of the Conservatives: “they’re focusing on benefit cheats, which is a very Tory thing to do, talking about slackers, compared to people who don’t pay the taxes they owe – they just slap them on the wrist and say ‘would you like to pay it back?’”

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The groups in both constituencies had noted the pledge to extend Pensioner Bonds. Most participants were not pensioners and were not impressed. “Cameron has offered something to the oldies. It’s a bribe, a vote grabber” – though nothing was very surprising about this either: “they do that with loads and loads of things.” On the upside, some thought the pledge had been made by Labour.

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Labour’s pledge to double paternity leave had also caught our participants’ attention – though in our groups, the women were rather more impressed than the men. The mothers usually liked the idea of extra family time, with several noting that arrangements in Europe seem more civilised in this regard. But for some of the men, “it’s another one of those promises that gets the headline, but when you look at the detail it’s barely the minimum wage. What is it, £260 a week? People can’t afford to take it. I couldn’t.” There were also practical considerations, especially for small businesses: “If you employ people it looks a bit different. The government pay for it but it’s the absence, the workload it creates for everyone else.”

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For those warily considering the options, what questions did each party have to answer to seal the deal? The Greens, as we have heard before, need to convince people that their vote would not be wasted when issues outside the party’s usual realm of interest are at stake: “people are more concerned with making ends meet, jobs, the NHS, the ageing population – so what can the Green Party bring to the table?” People were also concerned about the implications of their proposals for the cost of living: “going green, with lightbulbs and things, is always more expensive. How much is it going to cost?” Some had also detected what they regarded as a rather authoritarian approach: “They want to make things nice for the community and nice for the sky, but if you don’t want it, you’re having it”.

With UKIP, along with doubts about their approach to issues other than Europe and immigration, there were concerns that “extreme” views lurked below the surface and some wondered about “the hierarchy behind Farage”. Intriguingly, some also felt there would be “a bit of a social stigma” surrounding the party: “for me it would be ‘what would people say if they found out?’ People judge you on it. They say they don’t, but they do.” Others who were not considering UKIP corroborated this: “If someone told me they were voting UKIP I’d think differently about them. I’d be surprised they’d been sucked in”. This was as much about what they saw as the futility of such a vote as any disapproval of the party’s policies or rhetoric: “I couldn’t understand it. I would always vote for people who can change things and get into government and achieve something”.

With the Lib Dems, as reflected in the earlier discussion on the merits of Mr Clegg, the question in the minds of many was how robustly the party would stick to its pre-election positions if it found itself back in coalition negotiations: “are they going to roll over again like last time?” Some also wondered how, as one put it, they would achieve a “conscious uncoupling” from the Conservatives. (Certainly they will no longer be able to rely on the votes of people like the lady who quite literally said: “I didn’t know what to do last time, I was very confused, so I voted Liberal Democrat”.)

For doubtful potential Labour voters the question was “whether they can be trusted with the economy” or, to put it another way, “where will they get the money from?” The party’s reluctance to face up to what they regarded as its responsibilities when last in office was an important factor: “Acknowledge what happened, that you were in power for a long time and some negative things happened. Own it. Don’t just say it’s all gone wrong in the last four and a half years”. Some who were naturally sympathetic to the party were also waiting for a compelling reason to vote for it: “There seems to be no vision or real belief, nothing that gets be excited about Labour”; “If the Tories get in again it will be because there will have been no real alternative.”

For these participants, questions about the Conservatives concerned austerity. First, how far would they go when it came to public sector cuts, and were their tax credits safe? “I work in the public sector so I’m worried that if they get back in they really will finish the job.” Secondly, how long would it last and what did they have to look forward to at the end of it? “I just want to be out of the pit. It’s been going on for years. When are we going to be out of it?” “The job is half done at the moment. It’s part one. But if they haven’t done it by the end of part two there isn’t going to be a part three.”

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It being Oscars week, we need to know who the nation thinks should play the part of each leader in the movie of his life. Our participants struggled somewhat with Mr Clegg, though I doubt he will be too dismayed with the suggestion of Tom Cruise or Kevin Bacon. There was a wide consensus that Hugh Grant or Colin Firth should be cast as David Cameron, though whether either would be happy to play him is another question. There was even wider agreement – and I must emphasise that all these suggestions are unprompted – that Mr Miliband would be best portrayed by Rowan Atkinson, in character as Mr Bean. As so often, a division over the image of Mr Farage: for some, he is Ray Winstone; for others, Sid James.

>Visit LordAshcroftPolls.com for full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research and to sign up for news alerts. You can also follow him on Twitter: @LordAshcroft

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