Times report: Tories “make inroads” into Lib Dem support in south-west England. (But where’s the evidence?)

There’s a curious article in today’s Times by the paper’s chief political correspondent Sam Coates. Here’s how the report starts:

Voters are abandoning the Liberal Democrats in parts of their South West stronghold as dislike of Gordon Brown boosts support for the Conservatives. A tour by The Times of Lib Dem constituencies in the region found genuine signs of support for the Tories, with voters who backed the Lib Dems in 2005 now responding positively to the high-spending Tory campaign.

Conservative strategists believe the party is significantly more popular in swing seats that have been the target of campaign spending by Lord Ashcroft, the party’s deputy chairman. They believe that their advantage in constituencies such as the 11 Lib Dem marginals in the South West, is between three and eight percentage points higher than the national polls that currently point to a hung Parliament.

All pretty worrying stuff if you’re a Lib Dem … but let’s hang on a minute before we accept the party is doomed to face a stuffing at the general election in a few weeks’ time.

Reading the Times article I was unable to find any actual evidence to back up the paper’s line. In fact, if the story didn’t carry the by-line of Sam Coates – a journalist for whom I have a lot of respect – I would have assumed it was penned by Tory campaign HQ.

The only polling referred to, rather vaguely, is internal Tory polling: the rest of the article comprises a handful of random vox pops. Anecdotes can of course be instructive. But it seems some leap to take the views of a handful of locals in a couple of towns, and then extrapolate that across three entire counties.

The only south-west England-specific polling I’ve seen was last summer’s PoliticsHome marginals poll – that suggested a small swing (c.4%) from the Lib Dems to the Tories. Now it’s true a small swing is all it would take for a number of seats to change hands: but it would be risky to underestimate the power of Lib Dem incumbency, as many Labour/Tory challengers have found in the past.

Clearly there’s no room for complacency: the south-west, as last year’s local and European elections showed, is going to be a challenge for the Lib Dems. After all, the Tories have Lord Belize Ashcroft’s tax-free largesse to draw on. It’s quite possible, therefore, we could lose seats there. But I don’t think anyone, either from the Tory or Lib Dem sides, would be able to say for sure at this stage what might happen.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that The Times should splash this story with such certainty. I would have expected better of it, and of Sam Coates.

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  • So far as the Times Coates piece is concerned it does indeed read more like a Tory HQ brief than quality independent journalism. What a give away at the beginning of the report! Apparently The Times tour has been informed by: “Conservative strategists [who] believe the [Conservative] party is significantly more popular in swing seats that have been the target of campaign spending by Lord Ashcroft, the party’s deputy chairman.” Presumably that means that there has been less progress by the Tories in swing seats that have not seen campaign spending funded by Lord Ashcroft. Coates really does need to do better if he wants to win any credibility as a serious political journalist.

  • I commented on PBC that if we believe the spreads of c55 seats, and that we are almost certain to gain seats from Labour, then we will lose seats to the Tories. And that will almost certainly mean some in the SW given we hold c20 seats there. That said, most of the “evidence” seemed to be selective quotes. I’m sure a similar piece with the opposite POV could have been constructed on the same basis.

    As Stephen says – no complacency. And send Paddy down there as often as possible!

  • I find the media’s over simplification of the mind set of West country people staggering, haven’t the predicted David Heath will loose to the Tories since he was elected?

    If they actually spoke to normal people rather than looking for a few choice people just after they leave the local Tory office they will realise there is a dislike of “outsiders telling them what to do” though they have no trouble with
    outsiders coming and earning their respect (Paddy was born in India raised in Ulster but was hugely respected in Yeovil). Those outsiders they won’t be pushed around by include a London based media and London CCHQ imposed candidates.

    CCHQ was so keen to attack “simple country folk” in East Anglia with terms like “Turnip Taliban” they may not understand it yet but metropolitan snobbery is likely to come and bight them on the Arse. When their local Conservative Associations object to people who won’t live in the constituency they claim it is sexism, homophobia or racism. Perhaps it is, I don’t know but the impression to the local population is one of a snooty London based party attacking people who live around them.

    I think Ashcrofts money would be more effectively targeted in getting really big swings in Labour/Tory seats that they are currently not seeing as swing seats.

    But it’s his money, at least once he has spent it on an election it will re-enter the UK tax system at some point…

  • Anthony Aloysius St 24th Feb '10 - 4:45pm

    The results of the big poll examining marginal seats by Angus Reid have been published on Political Betting:

    As was widely expected, the swing to the Tories in Lab/Con marginals was found to be quite a bit larger than for the country as a whole (12% compared with 7.5%).

    But more at odds with received wisdom was the finding that the swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories was also larger in Lib Dem-held seats than in general (5.5% compared with – I reckon – about 4.5%). I suppose that difference is likely to be within the margin of error, but it obviously casts doubt on the belief that the Lib Dems will lose fewer seats to the Tories than a uniform swing calculation would indicate.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 24th Feb '10 - 5:56pm

    Anthony Wells has some cautionary comments about the figures from Lib Dem seats:

  • Anthony Aloysius St 24th Feb '10 - 8:02pm

    Perhaps another reason for caution is that although other polls have shown the Tories doing better in Lab/Con marginals than in the country as a whole, the size of this effect has been much smaller.

    For example, last month ICM found that the swing was only about 2% greater in marginals, compared with 4.5% greater in today’s poll:

  • Sorry Sam, you’ve got this one completely wrong. Support for the Tories has in fact been steadily dropping in the South West since the local elections last May. Take a look at recent council by-election results: in Cornwall the Tories lost their third safest seat to the Lib Dems in September – just six months after the main elections. This month, they lost the safe seat of Ivybridge Filham to the Lib Dems in a district council by-election. That is hardly “making inroads in to Lib Dem support” is it?

    On the doorstep too, people are much less impressed with the Tories than the national media like to make out. They are often critical of the performance of the Tories on local councils. Having bought the line about “change” last May, voters are beginning to learn what the term really means under the Conservatives: that things will get worse.

    Tory candidates appear to be pinning their hopes on David Cameron, putting his name and photo in every leaflet. But Cameron is much less popular on the doorsteps than the Tories think. Support for him is shallow. It owes more to a dislike of the current government than anything the Cameron himself is offering. A lot of voters also see him as a London spin doctor who does not understand the problems facing local people, such as low wages or lack of employment opportunities.

    People in the South West are also suspicious of the kind of candidates the Tories have selected locally: the smartly-dressed journalists, PR people and professional lobbyists who look and sound disconnected from the local community. In an area where local issues really matter, the Tories are trying to fight their entire election campaign from the centre. That is also of course how they would govern, and people know it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Feb '10 - 1:03pm

    People in the South West are also suspicious of the kind of candidates the Tories have selected locally: the smartly-dressed journalists, PR people and professional lobbyists who look and sound disconnected from the local community.

    Yes, and yet the press are heavily pushing this as “modernisation” and writing it up as if it is something that is helping gain votes for Cameron’s party.

    I think this shows how media people live in a bubble in which they suppose people like them are the best, anything which promotes them and their sort is “modernisation”, and this is to be greatly desired.

    Look at how Blair too used the word “modernisation” to describe the process of removing the democratic mechanisms within his party, and centralising control into the hands of Westminster bubble people.

    Politics is in a crisis because people feel politicians are some remote alien class, yet the reaction of the press is that the solution to this is “modernisation” by which they mean more power to PR people, more Westminster bubble people running things, and more dismissal of ordinary people as ignorant chavs who don’t know what’s good for them.

    The weird thing is that I seem to have been saying this since, ooh, 1981.

  • There is something wrong if tonights poll is correct.
    CON 39% (38)
    LAB 33% (32)
    LD 16%(19)

    Why should the Lib/Dem % go down to 16% ?
    If any one is down 3% this week it must be Brown.

  • Just read this
    Think Lib Dem, vote Labour – to beat the Tories
    Progressive voters have much in common. We should work together to thwart the Tories, especially in the marginals.

    Is this the reason for the Labour increase and why the Lib/Dem is down 3%. When Labour asks Lib/Dems to help them, some may, but others may want to keep Brown out?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 25th Feb '10 - 10:34pm


    It may just be sampling error. In fact I’ve been surprised that the YouGov daily polls have been showing so little movement.

    MORI tonight has CON 37 (-3) LAB 32 (-) LD 19 (+3). A Tory lead of just 5 points, which under uniform swing assumptions would leave Labour the largest party in the Commons by 16 seats.

  • The ups and downs for LD, Lab or Con in any individual poll are not at all informative. What is informative is the trend across polls, especially in polls undertaken over a period by any one of the leading pollsters.

    YouGov polls with such frequency now that – if you assume a consistency of method from one poll to the next, and I do – shifts in the results obtained from one series of polls to another can be quite instructive. Even if YouGov’s headline vote share figures are not to be relied upon (and my personal view is that they are unreliable – I think Angus Reid methodology is more helpful for getting at the condition of the Labour vote), YouGov results over recent weeks have shown something pretty significant happening to the Tory share of any prospective national vote.

    The Tory lead has been shrinking and the shrinkage has been marked. In May and June of 2009 YouGov polls were regularly showing Tory leads in the mid and high teens; now those leads are in single figures and haven’t exceeded 9 points in YouGov polls since 15th January 2010. Allowing for polling error and looking carefully at the trend the Tories have a big problem, which their national campaign team has not be able to address; and I am sure they have been trying hard to do so.

    LD poll results have been remarkably stable since last summer. Labour poll results show the Labour Party as the principal gainers from the faltering Tories. The strategy that Labour has employed, to claw its way back from a disastrous low in the polls last summer, was summed up in Brown’s PMQT focus on Cameron’s association with the playing fields of Eton. It has worked because electorally highly important groups in the UK don’t believe the Tories have changed or that Cameron has succeeded in distancing the Tory party from its history and origins as the party of privilege.

    If the LD’s go about their political and electoral tasks intelligently then punch and judy should shortly discover the fragility of their respective electoral bases. However, it is necessary to do more than exploit a political opportunity. LD’s must do a whole lot more to persuade the British electorate that they are the ones who have the ideas and the determination to overturn an abject and truly broken political system. If LD’s are perceived as simply nicer and fairer they will have failed, even if they enjoy a substantial parliamentary advance. Electors want to throw them out – not just Labour. It’s the LD’s task to give intelligent electors something apart from Others to vote for in order to achieve this.

  • Kasch Wilder 2nd Mar '10 - 8:44pm

    Any work that CCHQ does to make inroads here in the South West are totally reversed by the outrageous Conservative controlled councils throughout the region. All politics are local. Thats why at the end of the day, we will hold on to the majority of our seats here.

One Trackback

  • By Top of the Blogs: The Golden Dozen #158 on Sun 28th February 2010 at 9:35 pm.

    […] ever, let’s start with the most popular post, and work our way down: 1. Times report: Tories “make inroads” into Lib Dem support in south-west England. (But where’s t… by Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice. The Times’s Sam Coates goes into over-hype over-drive. 2. […]

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