Lord Ashcroft’s latest batch of constituency polls revisits some of the tightest Tory-Labour contests he polled in the second half of last year.
Seven of the eight seats under the microscope today are Tory-held, with Labour’s Southampton Itchen completing the set. Back in 2014, Ashcroft found Labour on track to take six of these with Southampton Itchen and South Swindon a dead heat.
Today South Swindon remains too close to call, while Labour has opened up a lead in Southampton Itchen but lost ground in Worcester where the Tories have gone from a two point deficit to a six point lead.
But the overall picture emerging from this set of polls is an encouraging one for Labour. Since these seats were last polled, there has been a further tightening in the national polls, with the Conservatives having possibly even crept into a small lead. The worry for Labour would therefore have been that this may be reflected losing some ground in key battlegrounds with the Tories. What we have in fact seen across these eight seats is an average Labour lead that has increased from 1.75 percentage points to 3.6 percentage points, and an average swing from CON to LAB which has increased from 3.4 per cent to 4.4 per cent.
What makes this surprising is that in every one of the eight seats polled, UKIP support has decreased since late-2014 by an average of around 4.5 points, and yet overall this does not seem to have yielded significant benefit for the Conservatives.
It has been a widely held assumption that as UKIP support gets squeezed closer to polling day, it would be David Cameron’s party who would feel the benefit. This hypothesis is not borne out in today’s Ashcroft polling. If anything, it may be those traditional Labour voters who have been flirting with UKIP who may be edging away from Nigel Farage’s party. Could it be that Labour’s strategy of trying to expose voters to the reality of some of UKIP’s policies, on the NHS for example, is bearing fruit?
Ashcroft polls ask two voting intention questions in his constituency polls: the first a standard voting intention question; the second asking specifically how respondents will vote in their own constituency, taking into account the candidates likely to stand there (though candidates are not named). The constituency voting intention question in all but one instance in this batch results in a slight decrease in support for UKIP (with a similar phenomenon also evident for the Greens) and usually results in a small bump in support for both the Tories and Labour. This may illustrate a small incumbency effect, or perhaps an awareness on the part of some voters that they are in a tight Tory-Labour seat. (In 2010, polling indicated that around a quarter of voters in marginal seats were aware of this fact – a figure that seems somehow seems both surprisingly low and surprisingly high at the same time.)
Whilst UKIP support is down, it should be noted that it remains a significant factor in these constituencies, with support ranging from 10 to 17 points. That is more than enough to have a significant bearing on the result in seats where they achieved an average vote of just 3 per cent in 2010.
The most high profile Ashcroft constituency polls of late have been those in Scottish Labour-held seats, painting a grim picture of the situation in Scotland for Ed Miliband where Labour is haemorrhaging votes to the Nationalists.
Today’s polls are less dramatic, but will make for rather happier reading for the Labour leader.