In my latest round of constituency research I have returned to eight seats in the Liberal Democrats’ battleground where I found very close contests in previous rounds of polling. These included one Conservative-held seat (Camborne & Redruth), five Lib Dem seats where the Tories are second (North Cornwall, North Devon, St Austell & Newquay, St Ives, and Torbay), and two seats where the Lib Dems are challenged by Labour (Cambridge and Sheffield Hallam).
The mix of results this time round underlines the lack of any uniform swing and the hazards of trying to calculate seat numbers on the basis of national vote shares. In all six seats on the Lib Dem-Conservative battleground, the Tory share was up since my previous polling, which took place between June and November 2014, and the Lib Dem share was also level or up in five of the six. The UKIP share was down across the board.
The upshot is that the Conservatives have consolidated their position in Camborne & Redruth, North Devon and St Austell & Newquay, where they lead by thirteen, seven and six points respectively. North Cornwall and Torbay, both tied in my previous polls, and St Ives, where I found a one-point Lib Dem lead, have all edged slightly in the Lib Dems’ direction – though the two parties remain within the margin of error of each other in all three.
The Lib Dems have established a clear lead in Cambridge, where Labour were a point ahead in September, though things still look uncomfortable for Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam, where I found him two points behind.
As ever, the Lib Dem vote was significantly higher in all seats when respondents were asked to think about their own constituency and the candidates likely to stand there, compared to the standard voting intention question simply asking which party they would vote for in an election tomorrow. Indeed the party was well behind in all eight seats – rather than ahead in four – on the basis of the standard question. However, I have not gone so far as to name individual candidates, as the Lib Dems do in their own private polling. Doing so usually boosts the Lib Dem vote share (especially when, as in the Lib Dems’ research, the voting intention question is preceded by a warm-up question asking whether the respondent has a favourable opinion of the incumbent, of whose name they are reminded). Whether this produces a more accurate assessment of real voting intentions is a different question. Indeed I have coined the term “comfort polling” to describe the practice of parties conducting research in such a way as to maximise their own apparent vote share.
On balance I continue to think that when people are prompted to consider their own area and the local candidates, an MP’s personal reputation should be baked in to their voting decisions. This should be especially true a few weeks before an election, when people are inundated with literature adorned with images of the local hero’s beaming countenance. Just as results might change if you asked whether people would vote for “David Cameron’s Conservatives” or “Ed Miliband’s Labour”, I suspect that prompting with the candidate’s name at a general election puts too much importance on one of the many factors that go into in an individual’s decision.
In the five Lib Dem seats targeted by the Tories, just under half (47%) of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 said they would do so again this time. This rose to 61% when they were asked to think about their own constituency. Meanwhile 12% of those who said they would vote Conservative in the standard question, and more than one in five (21%) of those who said they would vote Labour, switched to the Lib Dems on the “own constituency” question. Of those who had voted Conservative in 2010 but switched to UKIP, only just over half (53%) ruled out going back to the Tories at this election.
More than half (59%) of Lib Dem voters and two thirds of those who said they would vote UKIP were either satisfied with Cameron’s performance as Prime Minister, or dissatisfied but preferred him to Miliband. Eighty-five per cent of Conservative switchers to UKIP said they would rather have Cameron as PM; three quarters said they wanted to see the Conservatives back in government, including a majority (53%) whose preferred result was a Tory overall majority.
On the ground, the campaign is being very closely contested. While 53% in these seats said they had had literature, letters, phone calls or visits from the Conservatives, 52% said they had heard from the Lib Dems. There were variations between seats, though activity levels were high throughout. The highest contact rate of all was from the Lib Dems in Sheffield Hallam, where 76% said they had heard from Nick Clegg’s team; we will know in 35 days if it has paid off.