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

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com