DAVID CAMERON’S hopes of starting 2014 on an upbeat note have been undermined by the first two polls to be published in the New Year. They show him trailing Labour by between seven and nine per cent – enough to give Labour a clear Commons majority.
And both polls put Ukip on 16 per cent, fuelling Nigel Farage’s hopes of pushing the Tories into third place in May’s European Parliament elections.
The more up-to-date of the two polls was conducted by Opinium for The Observer, with 2,000 voters being questioned over four days up to 2 January. It has top-line figures of Labour 37, Conservative 30, Ukip 16 and Lib Dems eight.
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The more interesting of the two surveys is a mega-poll of 8,000 voters conducted for Lord [Michael] Ashcroft, the former Tory party treasurer who now bankrolls Conservativehome.com. It shows Labour on 39, Conservatives on 30, Ukip on 16 (higher than in any previous Ashcroft poll) and the Lib Dems on eight.
To put the two new polls in context, they both show a Labour lead higher than the six-point average lead given by Electoral Calculus, projected to produce an overall Commons majority of 78.
The Ashcroft poll was conducted in early November but has been held back until now in an attempt to influence Tory party electoral strategy.
Ashcroft’s declared aim is to help the Tories craft a coalition of voters large enough to give them outright victory in 2015.
Although a Tory majority in 2015 looks “elusive” he believes it is “far from impossible” for the Tories to win outright. However, “to do so they will need the votes of everyone who supported them last time, plus practically everyone who is even prepared to think about doing so next time”.
With that in mind he paid for 12 focus groups made up of Tory Loyalists (2010 voters who are sticking with the Tories), Defectors (2010 Tories who say they intend to switch, mainly to Ukip), Joiners (non-2010 Tories who say they would vote for them next time) and Considerers (non-2010 Tories who are thinking about it).
Loyalists, according to Ashcroft, “are united by their positive view of David Cameron, and think the party shares their values and has the best approach to the economy”. Joiners “think similarly but are more likely to prefer coalition government and to say they may change their mind again before the election”.
The problem for Cameron is that the numbers being attracted to the Tories are not enough to replace those turned off by them. Ashcroft’s research shows that more than a third of those who voted Tory in 2010 say they would not vote for the party in an election tomorrow. About half say they now support Ukip.
“These Defectors are not necessarily lost for good,” says Ashcroft. “Despite their current voting intention more than half say they want a Conservative government. And dissatisfied though many of them are with Cameron, most prefer him to the alternative.”
The Considerers also prefer Cameron to Miliband and are generally optimistic about the Tories’ handling of the economy though they don’t necessary “trust” the Tories on education and the health service.
Despite Ukip’s strong showing, Ashcroft warns the Tories not to get hung up on anti-Ukip tactics in the run-up to the 22 May elections. A wide range of pundits have made Ukip favourites to come out on top in the European Parliament elections and a Survation poll published just after Christmas put Ukip ahead of the Tories by one point, 25 to 24. (Labour led on 32 per cent but have traditionally struggled to get their supporters out in European elections.)
Ashcroft’s argument is that the European election will go largely unnoticed by most ordinary people – it’s only the political class who will be preoccupied by how well Ukip do. “Whatever tactical moves the Tories are tempted to make to minimise losses, they must keep their eyes on the real prize: the 2015 general election, now just 16 months away.”
Ashcroft says across all the four groups he surveyed voters said “sometimes grudgingly, that given the situation it found itself in the government had not done too badly. It had started to bring the public finances under control, and was moving in the right direction on welfare and immigration even if the results so far seemed meagre.
“But none of this changed the fact that, for many of them, life was hard and showed no signs of getting any easier despite the recovery they kept hearing so much about. As far as the Tories’ hardworking people are concerned, where – to use a phrase from the archive of the party’s lexicon – are the proceeds of growth? Showing convincingly that there is a better life to be had under the Tories will be hard.”
Given his worries about the Tories being mesmerised by Ukip, Ashcroft will likely be heartened that Cameron chose a bread-and-butter issue - pensions - as his first campaign pledge of 2014. Interviewed by Andrew Marr on Sunday, the PM promised that under the Conservatives, the “triple lock” on pensions would remain until at least 2020, guaranteeing an annual state pension rise of at least 2.5 per cent per year.
Needless to say, he rejected the suggestion that the pledge was an electioneering ploy, given that pensioners are more likely than younger people to vote.
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