What have we learned from the first Ashcroft poll of 2015?

We know nothing, those of us who write and talk about politics for a living.

That is, of course, an overstatement but it speaks to a problem particular to the 2015 general election.

Columnists, pundits, and the professionally opinionated – sometimes we call ourselves “analysts” to lend an air of science to our prognostications; just look at the headline on this piece – are beginning to churn out daily commentary on May’s vote.

But, unlike recent electoral history, there are too many variables in this election to predict the outcome with any certainty.

We don’t know who is going to win. We don’t even know if anyone will win, or if there will be a great pile-up of minority major parties and minor parties suddenly swelled.

We don’t know if Ukip will drain away votes from the Tory right or to what extent the SNP will tempt Labour’s Scottish heartlands. We can’t tell how much damage the Greens will do to Ed Miliband’s party in North London and the university towns or whether Welsh voters will use the general election to punish the devolved Labour administration for the ongoing NHS crisis.

We have no idea if the Liberal Democrats will be wiped out or merely knocked for six, though we can say with some surety that they are in for a kicking.

And let’s not even raise the issue of Northern Ireland.

So what do we know? The mainstream parties are unpopular – hated, even – and smaller, populist and nationalist outfits are profiting from that disillusionment. Voters have not necessarily lurched away from the centre ground but those who are so minded now have options outwith the broad political, economic and cultural consensus.

Socialism and cultural conservatism might be anachronisms to most voters but in the Greens and Ukip, respectively and in very different senses, there are now receptacles for the votes of those uneasy about modernity. The movement for Scottish independence may have been frustrated at the polls but the SNP offers true believers an attractive cause, a permanent revolution infinitely more appealing than a soul-searching and uninspiring Labour Party.

The rest, however, is guesswork. That guesswork is helped by opinion polling and the latest research from Lord Ashcroft, published on Monday, gives us the opportunity to indulge in a little more.

So, heeding the caveats listed above, here are a few interpretations of the new numbers.

Labour could be in trouble

The first Ashcroft National Poll (ANP) of 2015 puts the Conservatives ahead of Labour by six points (34% to 28%), a turnaround on recent polling which has tended to give a lead to Ed Miliband’s opposition.

This is of course just one poll and Lord Ashcroft notes:

“The ANP is subject to a margin of error of 3% — meaning the Conservative share could be low enough, and the Labour score high enough, for the parties to be tied on 31%. Indeed only the Conservative score, up four points, has moved outside the margin of error since the last ANP in December. Alternatively, we could be seeing the start of a shift in opinion as the choice looms larger at the start of an election year.”

Lord Ashcroft’s caution is well-placed but that “alternatively” carries a lot of weight. Four months out from the May 2010 election, the Conservatives were four points ahead of Labour with Opinium, nine with YouGov, ten with ICM, 13 with Populus, 13 with ComRes, and an outlier 16 with Angus Reid. To be six points behind, even if against a Conservative party which holds only a plurality rather than a majority of seats in the Commons, is not where Team Miliband wants to be.

And not to pile on but consider the gap in motivation. True, more Labour identifiers say they will definitely vote that way than Tories (73% to 62%) but it’s a different picture when we look at certainty to vote. Almost three in every four Tory supporters are certain to vote in May, compared to 65% of people who back Labour. Moreover, Labour sympathisers were twice as likely as Tories to place themselves on the less likely to vote end of the scale.

As the election approaches, voters’ thinking gets sharper

If that makes uncomfortable reading for Labour supporters, factor in this: The latest Ashcroft poll is the first to prompt for Ukip, which means interviewers mentioned Nigel Farage’s party to respondents alongside Labour, the Tories, and the Lib Dems. This might be expected to have delivered a boost to the English nationalist party. To the contrary, however, they are down three points on 16%.

There are many possible reasons for this but one is that voters, with just four months to go, are starting to think more about the election and how they will cast their ballot. Ukip’s populist rhetoric might have been appealing while the election was still an abstract but now that it is getting closer, and Mr Farage is the subject of increased media scrutiny, right-wing Tory identifiers could be beginning to see the election as a straight Tory-Labour fight or Ukip as too unpolished and outside the mainstream.

Still, as Lord Ashcroft wisely counsels, “let us see what future results tell us”.

It’s the economy, stupid Nationalists

Lord Ashcroft adds to the roster of pollsters bearing good news for the SNP. They are not only ahead of Scottish Labour in Westminster voting intentions — twice as many Scots say they will vote SNP as will back Jim Murphy’s party, by 48% to 24%.

Alex Salmond has set home rule rather than independence as the goal for the 2015 general election (whether he consulted the members of the party he no longer leads before coming to this conclusion is unclear). This might help neutralise the independence question amongst voters for whom it remains a barrier to voting SNP.

But the Ashcroft poll tells us why the Nationalists would do well to park the constitutional question altogether. The Tory peer’s research asked voters about their personal economic well-being in the wake of the recession. Overall, 23% say the economy is not recovering from the financial crash of 2008. Yet, look at the disparity between Scotland and other parts of the UK. North of the border, 35% report no signs of a recovery, the highest of any region — 12 points higher than even the north of England. In terms of those who say the economy is recovering but that they personally feel no better off, Scotland, on 35%, is closer to the UK average of 39%.

Taken together, seven out of every ten Scots believes the economy still to be in recession or that the recovery has been too weak to benefit them. Across the UK, it’s closer to six in ten. If the SNP wants to realise the opinion polls giving them anywhere between 40 and 50 seats in the Commons, these are the figures they should fix upon. A country where 70% of the voters feel economically disenfranchised is not one in the mood for a constitutional debate (and certainly not months after rejecting the premise of that debate by a ten-point margin in a referendum).

Talk about home rule and devo max can wait. The SNP cannot organise its pitch to voters around the grievances of the 45ers. People who feed their children from food banks don’t care what the Daily Record said or didn’t say several months ago. The party has to put the economy at the centre of everything it says and does for the next four months and if it does so it could reap real rewards.

The Greens have to get out the youth vote

As a long-standing minor party, which at the time of writing is unlikely to be included in any of the national TV debates, the Greens would be doing well to retain their one seat in the House of Commons. But the party is now regularly polling ahead of the Lib Dems — in Scotland, by a margin of two-to-one — and will be expected to produce a decent vote share in May.

One way to achieve this, and perhaps even pick up a second seat, is to concentrate on a demographic that has always been friendlier to the Greens than the population at large. Voters aged between 18 and 34 are twice as likely to vote Green as Lib Dem — 31% to 14%.

Green Party leader in England and Wales Natalie Bennett has spoken before about the potential for wooing the student-skewed populations of several university towns, telling the Guardian in November: “I think there are probably very few Liberal Democrat voters in universities. And that’s true of lecturers and staff as well as students. What we’re offering young people is hope: the idea of a future that works for the common good, that doesn’t see the bankers being allowed to get away with endless fraud, mismanagement and risk-taking at the expense of the rest of us.”

A seat to watch is Norwich South, a Lib Dem/Labour marginal where the Greens picked up 15% of the vote last time. Winning is still a big ask at this point but there is a realistic chance they could come second.

Of course, none of this might happen. All of it might happen. Maybe some of it but not other bits. Don’t ask me, I’m just an “analyst”.

Originally published on STV News

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