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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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