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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.