If I were a billionaire member of the House of Lords, I would commission polls that involve 20,000 people, just like Lord Ashcroft.
Partly, this would be so I could say “Silence!” like Darth Vader when my chosen pollster said, “but my Lord, we only need to poll 1,000 people to get a representative sample?”
But mostly it would be because polls with huge samples allow you to cut the data up and still get a large number of voters and a small margin of error. For example, the last Populus poll for The Times had 394 Labour voters in it. Ashcroft’s otherwise similar poll has 6,077 Labour voters.
For Ashcroft, this poll is about UKIP voters, who he describes in the following way:
“These voters think Britain is changing for the worse. They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame. They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better.”
Over 90 per cent of UKIP’s 2010 voters think that things in Britain are worse than a decade ago, and a similar proportion – 84 per cent – of what Ashcroft calls “UKIP considerers” think the same. Around 35 per cent of those UKIP considerers think that they will be personally worse off in ten years’ time. Nearly 70 per cent of UKIP’s 2010 voters think the economy will be doing no better in a few years’ time.
Does Lord Ashcroft’s poll confirm his claim that UKIP voters are disappointed with how the country is changing and pessimistic about the future? Yes. But because his poll is about UKIP and the internal debate in the Conservative Party, he doesn’t notice that those 6,077 Labour voters he polled are just as pessimistic: 86 per cent of Labour voters think things in Britain have got worse in the last ten years, 38 per cent think they will be personally worse off ten years hence.
Two points follow from this. Firstly, the unusual people are actually those who are sticking with David Cameron to 2015, and they are unusual in their optimism. A majority of this group expect to be better off in ten years time, 68 per cent think that the country will be better in a decade and 84 per cent expect the coalition’s economic decisions to produce significant results in the next two or three years. A Centreground/YouGov poll this summer found a similar Tory optimism – possibly naivety – about the extent to which further public sector cuts will be necessary.
Secondly, if you’re not one of these unusual optimists, then you may act on your pessimism in different ways. For example, you may consider switching party: one in ten 2010 Conservative voters now say they will vote UKIP and more than one in four 2010 Lib Dem voters now say they will vote Labour (the Lib Dem to Conservative and Conservative to Labour shifts in this poll are both in single digits).
Ashcroft’s other claim is that UKIP voters “do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better.” This seems to discount the possibility that you can be cynical about a party and still say that you would vote for them. On Lord Ashcroft’s numbers, a quarter of all of UKIP’s voters at the last election think that even if UKIP did get into Parliament, it wouldn’t achieve anything. Ashcroft’s polling also suggests that one in three people saying they currently intend to vote Labour won’t say that Labour is willing to take tough decisions for the long term and won’t say that their chosen party is competent and capable.
My bet for 2013 and beyond would be that UKIP will matter significantly less than whether or not David Cameron can spread optimism to non-Tories and whether Ed Miliband can convince all those currently saying they back Labour that the party is definitely ready for office.