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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser