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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad