Voters are warming to the idea of a Labour government

Lord Ashcroft poll shows that 56 per cent of voters would like to see a Labour-led government after the next election.

Lord Ashcroft's giant poll of 8,000 voters for ConservativeHome contains much that is worrying for Labour and Ed Miliband. More than half of those surveyed (52 per cent) say "Labour have not yet learned the right lessons from what went wrong during their time in government, and cannot yet be trusted to run the country again". In addition, even after a double-dip recession, David Cameron and George Osborne are still more trusted to manage the economy than Miliband and Ed Balls (by 53 per cent to 47 per cent), and Cameron has a 12-point lead over Miliband as the best prime minister (56 per cent to 44 per cent).

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority.

However, it's still worth highlighting one finding which should give Labour heart. Asked which party they would like to see in power in 2015 (see table below), rather than merely which they would vote for in an election tomorrow (a subtle but important distinction), 56 per cent say they would like to see a Labour-led government (36 per cent favour a Labour government and 20 per cent a Labour-Lib Dem coalition), while only 44 per cent say they would like to see a Conservative-led government, with 31 per cent favouring a Conservative government and 13 per cent a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

Ninety three per cent of Labour joiners - those who did not vote for the party at the last election but say they would do so tomorrow - would like to see the party in power in some form after the next election. Even among Labour considerers, those who did not vote Labour in 2010 and would not do so in an election tomorrow, but say they would consider the party in the future, the figure is 72 per cent.

This is significant because it suggests that voters increasingly view Labour as an alternative government, rather than merely a receptacle for protest votes. For those Tories who console themselves with the thought that voters will drift back them before 2015 (and that new ones will join them), it is a worrying development.

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on 19 November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.