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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era