Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll gives Labour and the Lib Dems reasons to be cheerful

Labour has a 14-point lead in the 32 most marginal Tory-Labour seats, while the Lib Dems are just three points behind the Conservatives in the eight most competitive Tory-Lib Dem seats.

After the return of economic growth and the narrowing of Labour's poll lead prompted some Tories to talk of a "glide path to victory", Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll has provided a much-needed dose of realism. The survey of the Conservatives' 40 most vulnerable constituencies shows that the defection of Tory supporters to UKIP means that Labour now enjoys a 14-point lead in the 32 seats where it is in second place, compared to a national lead of just five in Ashcroft's poll. In short, the party is gaining support where it matters most. Labour is on 43% (down one since 2011), the Tories are on 29% (down six), UKIP is on 11% and the Lib Dems are on 8%. That lead is large enough for Miliband's party to win the 32 most competitive Con-Lab marginals and a further 66 off the Tories if the swing is replicated elsewhere, putting it on course for a comfortable majority.

But it isn't just Labour and UKIP that have cause to be cheerful; there's also some rare good news for the Lib Dems. In the eight most marginal Con-Lib Dem seats, Nick Clegg's party is just three points behind David Cameron's, with a swing of only 0.5% to the Tories since 2010. The Conservatives are on 32%, with the Lib Dems on 29%, Labour on 18% and UKIP on 12%. For the Lib Dems, it is further evidence that their vote is holding up where they are competitive. Rather than merely defending their existing 57 seats, the surge of UKIP (which draws around 60% of its support from 2010 Tories) means that the Lib Dems could yet hope to dislodge the Tories in seats where they are vulnerable.

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 voters stop treating opinion polls as a referendum on the government (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, 18 months 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.

David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.