After yesterday's mixed local election results, which suggested that Labour would merely become the single largest party if they were replicated nationally (not a good position for an opposition to be in a year before a general election), Lord Ashcroft's super poll of marginal seats has raised spirits in the party. The survey of 26,000 voters in 26 Conservative-Labour battlegrounds found a swing of 6.5 per cent to Labour - "enough to topple 83 Tory MPs and give Ed Miliband a comfortable majority".
It's important to remember that this is a snapshot, not a prediction. In October 2009, a similar poll suggested the Tories would win a majority of 70. Just seven months later, they didn't win one at all. But thanks to the defection of Lib Dem voters to Labour and the defection of Tory voters to Ukip, Ed Miliband is in a strong position to become prime minister. The swing achieved by Labour in the marginals (6.5 per cent) is greater than the national average (5.5 per cent), supporting Labour's boast that it is "winning voters where it matters" (as it did in 2010 when it won a 1992 share of seats on a 1983 share of the vote).
Less happily for the party, the poll also found that just three in ten voters would rather see Miliband as prime minister than Cameron, and that nearly seven in ten trust Cameron and Osborne most to run the economy. History suggests that a significant number of this group will return to the Conservative fold once faced with the task of electing a national government, rather than expressing a fleeting opinion. But as I've argued before, the rise of Ukip and the collapse of the Lib Dems means the past may be a less useful guide to the next general election than any other.
Based on Ashcroft's findings, the Tories should abandon any lingering hope they have of winning a majority and recognise the struggle they will face merely to remain the largest party.
Here's how Douglas Alexander, Labour's general election strategy chair, has responded: "Lord Ashcroft's poll confirms that we are making real progress in seats where we need to do well and that Labour can win next year's General Election. In the year ahead we will continue to show how we can make a difference to people's lives and engage directly with voters conversation by conversation, doorstep by doorstep.”