Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll shows the route to a Labour majority

Labour would win a majority of 84 by gaining 93 seats off the Tories and 13 off the Lib Dems. But remember: it's a snapshot, not a prediction.

I've just returned from ConservativeHome's Victory 2015 conference, where Lord Ashcroft (recently profiled for the NS by Andrew Gimson) presented the findings of his huge new marginals poll. These are the seats that elections are won and lost in, so Ashcroft's survey of 19,000 voters in 213 constituencies is the best guide we have to who would win were a general election held today. Polls like this answer the questions that national surveys cannot. Is Labour just piling up votes in its northern and Scottish strongholds? How many seats can the Tories hope to win off the Lib Dems? How many seats can Labour hope to win off the Tories?

Ashcroft's poll shows that although the swing to Labour is lower in the marginals than nationwide (largely due to first term Tory MPs benefiting from an incumbency effect), Ed Miliband would still enter Downing Street with a majority of 84 after a net gain of 109 seats (leaving Labour with 367 MPs). This compares to a majority of 114 on a uniform national swing.

While the Conservatives would win 17 seats off the Lib Dems (including Eastleigh), these gains pale in comparison to the losses they would suffer. Ninety three of the Tories' 109 most marginal seats would fall to Labour, with the biggest swings in the Thames estuary (10.5 per cent) and the Midlands (9.5 per cent). As I've written before, the defection of left-leaning Lib Dem voters to Labour in these seats means the Conservatives will struggle to remain the largest single party, let alone win a majority. There are, for instance, 37 Con-Lab marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.

In addition to gaining 93 seats off the Tories, Labour would win 13 off the Lib Dems, with a 17 per cent swing to the party in those seats where it is in second place. All but two of the latter would fall to Labour as well as two seats – Cambridge and Leeds North West – where it is currently third.

The poll will gladden Labour hearts and darken Tory ones but it's important to remember, as Ashcroft says, that it is "a snapshot not a prediction". It tells us what would happen were a general election held today, not what is likely to happen in 2015. Governments invariably gain support in the run-up to a general election as the opposition comes under greater scrutiny (2010 was typical of this), so Labour needs a large cushion of support to be confident of victory. A similar poll conducted by PoliticsHome in September 2008 suggested the Conservatives would win a landslide majority of 146 seats, while another, carried out in October 2009, pointed to a Tory majority of 70. Just seven months later, Cameron was left with no majority at all. In other words, two years out from the general election, only the most optimistic Labourite or the most pessimistic Tory would treat this poll as a reliable indicator of the result.

Lord Ashcroft's poll shows that Labour would win 93 of the Conservatives' 109 most marginal seats. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.