Lord Ashcroft's diary: CyberNats, a psychic crocodile and what the polls tell us about Ukip voters

The former Conservative deputy party chairman reviews the political week.

Swarms over Scotland
 
They warned me but would I listen? Publish a poll of Scots, they said, and you will incur the wrath of the CyberNats. Those who have not had reason to wade into Scottish politics will be mercifully unaware of the CyberNat – a species of online political activist whose nationalist fervour impels them to descend on any opponent (or perceived opponent) with terrifying e-ferocity.
 
Earlier this month, I published some research which found that most Scots were unsurewhich responsibilities lay with the Scottish Parliament and which remained with Westminster; that most thought taxes and debt would rise if Holyrood were given more powers; and that a majority continued to oppose independence. For CyberNats, this sort of thing is heresy; it just cannot be allowed. They unleashed a swarm of tweets, which made lucid and reasoned arguments and raised some constructive psephological points, such as: “Why don’t you just f*** off out of our affairs? Commission a nasty wee poll on that, you w*****.” With such fearsome debaters ranged against it, how ever will the Union survive?
 
Spot the difference
 
In February, the New Statesman generously declared me the “nation’s pollster-in-chief”, a title I have been doing my best to live up to. One of the most telling findings in my recent research concerns the “Go home or face arrest” vans, launched by the government in a bold move to tackle illegal immigration/a shameful ploy to pander to prejudice (delete as applicable). I found that the people who most overwhelmingly approved of the initiative were, at the same time, the least likely to think it would work. Who were this group? Yes: Ukip voters.
 
This may not be quite everything you need to know about those attracted to Nigel Farage’s party but there is something revealing in their strength of support for what they evidently regarded as a heroically pointless gesture. My latest poll in Tory-held marginal seats found that although Labour’s vote share had stagnated since 2011, Tory defectors to Ukip could open the door to No 10 for Ed Miliband. Yet the evidence suggests that when it comes to winning back Ukip voters, the challenge for the other parties is to persuade them what any government does will make any difference at all. Their apparent willingness to vote for a party that is unlikely to win even a single seat is largely born of the view that it doesn’t matter who is in charge. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have just under 20 months to persuade them it matters a great deal.
 
What voters want
 
People are still sometimes baffled why I do all this polling – and why, having done it, I make it available to everyone, including the Tories’ opponents. The answer is that my political stance and my research are, in effect, separate. I am a pollster who takes the Tory whip, rather than a Tory peer who polls.
 
Certainly I want to see a Conservative government with an overall majority. But politicians are constantly accused – sometimes fairly and sometimes not – of either pandering to public opinion or ignoring it. Britain will be better governed if politicians across the board have a better understanding of what the voters think and why.
 
Knowledge is power
 
John McTernan, who has the surely unique claim of having been an adviser to the prime minister-before-last in two different countries, has some good advice for the Australian Labor Party following its trouncing at the hands of my friend Tony Abbott.
 
The first order of business is to “work out why you lost”, he wrote in the Guardian. “What is needed is the kind of polling that Lord Ashcroft did for the British Conservatives, which identified the policies and aspects of the brand that were toxic.”
 
Asked by a Twitter follower if this advice wasn’t a bit on the obvious side, McTernan replied: “Most parties when they lose elections split into factions & exchange prejudices. Ashcroft saved Cameron by doing the research.” Don’t all thank me at once. No, no, you’re quite welcome.
 
Animal instincts
 
I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time in Australia. It has a larger-than-life quality I have always admired and this extends to its political reporting. Leafing through the election coverage, I came across this headline in the Northern Territory’s NT News: “Psychic croc picks Abbott to win”. Who needs polls?
 
All at sea
 
The summer of 2013 already seems distant but it was one I will never forget. Escaping the English heatwave, I fulfilled an ambition to sail the west coast of Greenland and the North-West Passage, the Arctic sea route first navigated by Amundsen in 1906. In my 140- character despatches charting our progress, interspersed with pictures of polar bears and arresting landscapes, I noted that the sea ice was unusually heavy this year, appending the playful hashtag #globalcooling. This triggered a series of brief Twitter lectures: greater sea ice didn’t call climate change into question; how ignorant and simplistic to suggest such a thing. So why do I feel that, had I reported the ice to be unusually sparse, the same people would have claimed this as incontrovertible proof of global warming? What it must be to understand these things.
 
Guzzling Gusbourne
 
Over my 50 years in business, I have increasingly wanted my ventures to be fun, not just profitable. I have high hopes on both fronts for my latest investment, Gusbourne Estate, a producer of world-class sparkling wine in Appledore in Kent. The product will be of particular interest to readers of this journal, renowned as they are for their discernment and good taste. Try the Brut 2008; the tasting notes describe it as rich, with a nutty finish. The Harriet Harman vintage? 
 
For full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research, visit: lordashcroftpolls.com. Follow him on Twitter: @LordAshcroft

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).