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

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 was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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    This entry was posted in Polls.


    • Interesting that of the 5 Labour-LD marginals polled, 4 are expected to go to Labour and the 5th is down to a 1% margins for the LDs. It looks like the Libs may really struggle in Lib-Lab marginals but although they’re doing slightly better against the Tories, that could be a bloodbath too.

    • mack (Not a Lib dem) 29th Sep '14 - 7:00pm

      In the final stages of the Scottish referendum campaign the pollsters put the Yes and No camps at neck and neck, and even gave the Yes campaign a marginal lead. I needn’t remind anyone that the No camp won by a whopping ten per cent. How can you believe any poll after that? However, on the experience of previous by-elections I anticipate that the Lib Dems will have a lot of lost deposits at the General Election.

    • If one looks at Lord Ashcroft’s tabulation of voting intention changes since June 2014, there have been increases in Lib Dem support since then both in Oxford West and Abingdon (up 5%) and in Watford (up 1% and that was before Dorothy Thornhill’s adoption as our PPC there, as well as increases in Lib Dem support in Cheadle, North Cornwall, St.Austell & Newquay, St.Ives, and Sutton and Cheam. The figures for Mid Dorset and Poole North and Solihull are unchanged, and the only constituencies where our support is shown as having declined since June are Chippenham, Somerton and Frome, and Wells. I leave Eastleigh out of these calculations since Lord Ashcroft’s arithmetic for Eastleigh is a bit obscure, but he does project us as ahead there and with a percentage ahead of what we secured in the by-election.

      So let us not get completely carried away by pessimism.

    • @mack I think the final polls in the Scottish independence referendum had No on 52% and Yes on 48%. A lead of 4%. The maths of sampling theory says that 19 out of 20 times you will be within +/- 3%- you might on a random basis sample more of one thing/type of person. For true and complete random sampling (which is not done) there will be for example a few samples when you stand outside the Conservative (or Liberal or Labour) clubs/meetings!
      So 55%/45% was well within the margin of error of the polls. Moreover the yougov poll on the day (not quite an exit poll) recontacting people they had surveyed earlier in the week gave 54%/46% in favour of NO – very close to the final result – indicating a slight late shift back to NO. Then again if there had been a shift of 2% in favour of YES…
      As is said polls are a snapshot and it is relatively encouraging that it would be possible for the Lib Dems to win most if not all of the Lib Dem/Conservative marginals – obviously the opposite is also true. OXWAB and Watford – especially Watford are within winnable reach.

    • Interesting stuff, but we hve to get out of the mindset that the general election in May will follow patterns evident in previous general elections.
      There are more than a few jokers in the pack, such as —
      1. UKIP
      2. An SNP with a membership in Scotland alone which is bigger than Clegg can manage from the entire UK
      3. A Liberal Democrat leader who is so toxic he is the most unpopular paty leader since opinion polls began.
      4. For the first time in thirty years there is no local government base to provide activists and organisation.
      5 We have hundreds of constituencies with no candidate in place at this late stage. I guess that means there is mstrong likelihood that there will to be mall Slye of candidates – I cannot remember the last time that ws true.
      6 There is a clique at the top of the party whose aims and objectives are different from the principles in the preamble to the constitution.

    • David Allen 29th Sep '14 - 8:12pm

      “2015 will be, as Tim Farron has coined it, a “survival election””

      What is the point of electing a rump of about 18 Lib Dems (i.e. some 30% of current numbers, according to Ashcroft)? That’s about the same as Ulster. It may well be fewer than UKIP. It won’t be much bigger than SNP plus Plaid. It won’t be enough to hold the balance in any circumstances, and no Lib Dems will get back into government (unless they take Cameron’s shilling, that is.)

      The public could rightly conclude that in the long term, the best thing for centre-left politics would be a complete wipeout for the Lib Dems, the dissolution of what is now a widely distrusted political party, and hence the chance to create an entirely new party in its place. With no Cleggs, no Laws, no Rennards, no Hancocks, and no pledges. With the restoration of all the political principles we have ditched since Clegg took over in 2007.

      When the public works that out, the Lib Dem vote will fall yet further.

    • paul barker 29th Sep '14 - 8:18pm

      Steven is right that we should listen to what Ashcroft says, for example “as far as the Voters are concerned The Election might as well be 8 Years away not 8 Months.” We find Politics endlessly interesting, The Voters mostly dont. Now that everyone knows when The Election will happen most Voters will give it serious thought when they have to & not a day before.
      This Election will indeed be about Our survival as a Party but it will also test the other 2 Old Parties. The Tories are giving us a very good imitation of a Party falling apart, what does Ashcroft tell us about Labour ? More than 1 in 3 of those “Intending” to vote Labour dont want Milliband as PM. Perhaps they are masochists or maybe their Intentions arent very serious ?
      The whole of British Politics is in crisis, not just us. “All that is solid melts into Air.”

    • To be honest, Ashcroft’s figures seem more sensible than Electoral Calculus’s prediction that UKIP will somehow get 17% in Cambridge.

      Electoral Calculus in general is hilarious, to be honest.

    • Jonathan Pile 29th Sep '14 - 8:32pm

      What John Tilley says is absolutely right. Yet recent events have shown that over the next 8 months public opinion may still shift. labour may squeak home on 35% yet on the economy and leadership they have the weakest offering since 1983. The Tories aren’t going to increase their vote on 2010 and ukip will make a strong showing. Scotland had shown that past mistakes such as tuition fees provide the backdrop but may not be the end of the story.
      The party must hold unity, the political centre against the extremists and offer a positive and compassionate vision of the future which addresses the policy concerns of those on the left of our great party. Events and politics might deliver a survival role for party provided the leadership stands firm but listens and we reconnect with voters. We need the determination and grit shown in the defence of the uk.

    • I’d say that is a disaster for the Lib Dems, the SNP will probably win more seats than they do, UKIP could as well, that would make them the 5th party.

      That’s what happens when you make pledges to your voter base and don’t honor them.

      In a way, if the Lib Dems do lose most of their seats it will be good for British Democracy in the long run, it will show parties exactly what will happen to them if the don’t keep their promises.

    • jedibeeftrix 29th Sep '14 - 9:16pm

      @ JT – “An SNP with a membership in Scotland alone which is bigger than Clegg can manage from the entire UK”

      True, but i wonder how much of that mud will stick?

    • The great uncertainty that is more significant for marginal seats than others is tactical voting. Many voters may well have made up their minds, but as often enough about which party they do not want rather than which they positively want.

      Lib Dems in government are in uncharted territory and no longer beneficiaries of the anti politics vote. Although any votes are welcome, it is ultimately defeatist to rely on such votes. Although the next election looks likely to be a set back, I would predict a swing to Lib Dems as tactical voters make their final calculations.

      Discussions about gender balance of candidates looks rather superfluous, if the key objective is to retain seats rather than make new gains.

      Post the 2015 election it will be important to move forward from the experience of government rather than retreat to a political bystander mentality. This certainly does not have to mean embracing the centrism that we sometimes hear from Nick Clegg, but does mean forming a Liberal identity that capitalises on the Lib Dem experience of government.

    • Robin McGhee 29th Sep '14 - 9:39pm

      Most worrying thing about this is our reliance on UKIP to keep support up in Tory-held seats. It seems very likely the Tories will relentlessly hammer UKIP supporters in the run-up to the election which will harm us (and Labour) severely.

      I also second Caractacus’ point above- bizarre that support in the party-support question should be lower in held seats than the national average.

    • Does anyone have similar data for the same period in 2010? Would be interesting!

      Go on Mr Tall, I’m sure you have it 🙂

    • These figures could be a lot, lot worse. Few of our seats could be described as write-offs. With both Tories and Labour faltering, this should be an opportunity to regain a measure of support. However, I think it is unlikely that we will benefit that greatly, because we lack a leader that the public is willing to listen to and trust. Question: how many of those target seats are going to allow the Leader to set foot on their soil during the general election campaign and the run-up?

      Surely it is time now for our sitting MPs to do what Paul Burstow did a year ago – drop their ministerial jobs and spend the next eight months campaigning?

    • AT the moment (with UKIP effect on present poll levels) any Lib Dems with votes at over 33 pr cent should have a reasonable chance of winning. The good news, for those who haven’t noticed it, is the Ashcroft polls haven’t included most of the better ‘chance’ Lib Dem seats.

    • If you want to win, do what Stephen Lloyd and Paul Burstow do.

    • Eddie Sammon 30th Sep '14 - 1:54am

      I think George Osborne blew it for the Conservatives today. The country will not put up with hacking public services whilst leaving the super rich untouched.

      It is still possible to win on a small state agenda, but I thought they were going to try to dance towards the centre with Labour having one foot in the left. Big opening for Lib Dems in 2015.

    • David Allen 29th Sep ’14 – 8:12pm
      You wrote — “…….the best thing for centre-left politics would be a complete wipeout for the Lib Dems, … … and hence the chance to create an entirely new party in its place. … ….With the restoration of all the political principles we have ditched since Clegg took over in 2007….”

      I think the voting public are ahead of you. In May’s local and Euro elections the centre left voters in England and Wales went mainly to Labour with a much smaller number going to The Greens. The Liberal Democrats were wiped out in May 2014. It will be a similar wipe out in May 2015.

      Clegg, Laws, Marshall etc had an illusion of millions of right wing voters just waiting to vote for Clegg’s Centre Party. It did not happen in 2010, it did not happen in 2011, 2012, 2013 or 2014. It will not be happening in 2015.

      Surely now everyone can now see that was the wrong-headed wishful thinking of a small clique of public school boys whose understanding of the Liberal Democrats was deeply flawed??

      Unfortunately Clegg and his clique have no Plan B — unless it is the madness of Jeremy Browne who wants to take the party even further to the right.

    • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 30th Sep '14 - 9:17am

      Yes, it has always astonished me that given their inherent margins of error the polls have so much perceived infallibility.
      Even so, it is stretching it somewhat for the polling companies to suggest that the 10.7% difference between yes and no proved that their polls were still accurate. Next time Labour are shown to be at 35% and the Tories at 32% I ‘ll assume that the actual Labour lead is 9%. I suggest that the Liberal democrats do the same. If nothing else, given your execrable position in the polls nationally it will at least keep your spirits up.

    • @Caracatus: ” The worry must be if UKIP support falls, it will go back to the Tories who will be relentlessly banging on about a EU referendum and stopping Ed Milband being PM. If on the other hand UKIP bandwagon rolls on from Clacton they will take support from the soft Lib Dem voter.”

      One of the things that really interested me looking at the tables is that the UKIP supporters ruled out voting for the Tories in pretty high numbers AND numbers not that dissimilar to ruling out voting Lib Dem or Labour (in most constituencies). This suggest to me (a) that a mass return to the Tories is unlikely and (b) the pattern may not be as simple as UKIP Tories.

    • Bill le Breton 30th Sep '14 - 9:29am

      Good spot Jack.

      Also: Incumbency????

      Ashcroft in his commentary to these polls (not in the link Stephen provides) rightly removes the mystique from this word. It is about effort and technique. The newly elected often do more work and obviously someone with at least 4 years as an MP has the potential to have put in place the apparatus to run an effective all-year-round campaign.

      Which is why the Ashcroft Question 6, asking whether any of the main political parties have been in contact with the responder ‘over the last few weeks’, is crucial.

      The answers to this question tell us much about the reasons for present performance and the potential for improvement.

      I hope Paddy is trying to find out why some of our people are being out ‘connected’ by their opponents and trying to provide whatever is required to address this.

      Of course the sampling was done in late August early September and as the saying goes among old stagers, “Politics is a Winter Sport”. Even so, getting out connected whilst having the benefit of office is a worry.

      Making Up Your Mind ?????

      Electors do tend to be about 6 months behind on their awareness of things. This is why November is a key moment for influencing the result of a May election and why Parties which have the resources spend a lot of money on country-wide campaigns in that month.

      They lay down ‘ideas’ in November that are very influential and then use the election campaign period activity to trigger these latent decisions.

    • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 30th Sep '14 - 9:36am

      Yes, surely UKIP’s big marketing point is that they are NOT the Tories or Labour or the Lib Dem’s!

    • Liberal Neil 30th Sep '14 - 10:20am

      I think Ashcroft’s polling is very useful, and that it always dangerous to pick holes in polling that you don’t like.

      Saying that, the more interesting comparison would be comparing this poll data with what the position was in each of those seats in August 2009 which would be a like for like comparison, rather than August 2014 with the May 2010 result.

      Overall what it tells me is that where we are head to head with the Tories we can achieve a good result, but that in quite a few of our held seats they haven’t been doing to the work to achieve one.

    • Bill
      “.,,,,,This is why November is a key moment for influencing the result of a May election and why Parties which have the resources spend a lot of money on country-wide campaigns in that month.”

      Yes indeed. November is very Important. This is partly because of the entirely practical considerations of how ordinary people live their lives. People do other stuff in December — buying Christmas presents, sending cards, over-eating and gathering together the family.
      After Christmas comes the bad weather.
      The electiom will start in March, and finish at the begining of May. So the amount of time between October and the election is very, very limited. You can count it in days rather than months.

      If, for example, your party is in such a crap state in late September that there are hundreds of constituencies without parliamentary candidates then your party is probably stuffed already along with the turkey.
      Will Liberal Democrats have fewer candidates than UKIP in May?
      Maybe that is the plan, so that Clegg can give “coupon” election support to the Conservative in constituencies where there is no Liberal Democrat candidate ??

    • It is all an indication of failure as a party. Okay in government but self destructive in the country. The figures speak for themselves. Yet the party, or what is left of it, will roll into the conference all smiles and contentment, the leaders speech will be greeted by laughter, happiness and cheers, whether real or false, and the circus will continue to oll onto its seeming destiny, something akin to the Conservatives crash in Canada a few years back and the party performance in the Euros this year. The public will continue to look on with blank astonishment or worse still scoff and laugh.
      There is only one hope and this has been the case for some time, a new leader, someone totally different in style and personality and presentation, ideally a women, pity the leader in Wales is not a parliament. Shame the party cannot be led by somebody outside the Commons, what an opportunity, but of course totally outside the thinking of the party predominatley male establishment. So we just continue to dig ourselves a deeper hole.

    • @mack @Michael

      I think you may be confusing the margin of error of individual polls with the margin of error of multiple polls. The MoE of the ‘final average’ of all the independence polls would be close to 1%.

      However that obviously doesn’t take into account any error other than that of sampling (any systematic bias, late movement etc).

      In other words the difference between the polls final estimate and the final result was not mainly down to sampling error.

    • peter tyzack 30th Sep '14 - 4:03pm

      there is a world of difference between what a voter says to a pollster and what a voter does in the privacy of the polling booth. With Ukip taking votes from both Labour and Tory, it is anybody’s guess what will actually happen. It’s a mugs game trying to predict anything this time, especially when the tabloids decide to have a field day and then the bookies announce their odds… given that the tabloids have their non-dom owners’ agenda to run to, and the bookies odds are calculated to ensure he makes money.

    • @Caracatus – in answer to: “and after we have an EU in out referendum – what happens to the UKIP vote?” – I’m assuming that the result would be “out”, in which case we’ll have much bigger problems than what UKIP supporters want to do next.

      If I had to hazard a guess, they will continue to vote for the most right – wing party available (which may be UKIP).
      Probable agenda:
      – abolition of all state benefits
      – total privatization of the NHS
      – end of state education

    • One interesting thing to consider, which I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of days, is the possibility of an anti-SNP tactical vote in Scotland. One thing which the referendum did was harden significantly views about the SNP from people previously loyal to the three pro-union parties. Ashcroft’s polling doesn’t seem to include Scotland, but in areas like NE Scotland could there be some coalescing behind the party most likely to beat / hold on against the SNP?

      Cameron’s comments about a “Tory revival” in Scotland, though, are just pipe dreams. They’ll do well just to hold on to what they’ve got (though, if the anti-SNP vote is stronger than the anti-Tory vote, they could pick up a couple.)

    • Sue Doughty 3rd Oct '14 - 3:10pm

      The incumbency point is an interesting one. Having gained a constituency by a handful of votes and lost it by a smaller handful I’m very aware of a number of points
      Most Lib Dem MPs work hard especially in marginal seats to hold on in. Losing is often a number of factors – in Guildford we of course made mistakes ourselves which I am not going to rehearse here, but also we need to remember that the Guildford Tories regrouped and chose a candidate who could out do me – not only a woman but a nurse and so my personal vote became more problematic – voters said they liked both of us – and as Caracatus pointed out above – our campaigns were run on similar lines – Lib Dem campaign styles. Even I however couldn’t manage the strap line ” Parliament needs a nurse”.
      Stephen Lloyd has played a blinder in Eastbourne – no other party could choose a candidate like him and its understandable to see why he will be hard to shift. But the party has been right to go through each seat and look at what is being done to win next time, and then to make sure that the very scarce campaigning resources are invested wisely.

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