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Editor's blog Tuesday 24 May 2011: Singing the blueprints with Lord Ashcroft’s Conservative voters and considerers

“The need for new supporters is a mathematical fact – we will not be able to implement a Conservative manifesto in full unless we get a bigger share of the vote than we did last time … Headline voting intention figures in the polls obscure the fact that the Conservative Party has in fact lost close to one in eight of its voters from 2010. The reason the Tories still retain a share in the mid-thirties rather than the high twenties is that they have won over a section of the electorate which did not vote Conservative at the election. By far the most important feature of this group was the belief that the Conservatives had the best approach on the economy; this was followed by high approval ratings for the Prime Minister.

“Unfortunately these welcome additions to the Conservative voting coalition were matched by the number of defectors, who voted Conservative in 2010 but would not do so in an election tomorrow. For half of these, the most important factor was that they did not think the Conservatives had the best approach to the economy; the great majority also felt the Tories were not the best party on the NHS.”
Lord Ashcroft, Project Blueprint

“In the end it was because of the NHS. When I hear the Conservatives are going to reform the NHS it sets alarm bells ringing, because I think ‘privatisation’.”
Un-named voter who considered voting Conservative in 2010 but did not, quoted in Project Blueprint

“And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find what price
You have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice”
Bob Dylan, Stuck Inside Of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again

Lord Ashcroft is a significant figure in Conservative politics, to put it mildly.

His ‘Ash cash’ strategy to target Labour marginal seats at the last election cost him a small fortune, and did not deliver the overall majority he sought. His tax residency status created considerable headaches for the party in the run-up to the last general election, with apparent mis-speaking on the issue by William Hague scarcely helping matters.


Click here for details of 'Lansley: the NHS is not a mobile phone; I am not Henry V', via subscription-based Health Policy Intelligence.


Lord Ashcroft is also the major investor in the influential Conservative Home website, and also invests in political influencer Iain Dale’s BiteBack companies.

Lord Ashcroft has vast sums of money. He also has an ongoing feud with Labour’s director of strategic communications, ex-Westminster journalist Tom Baldwin, as this Telegraph article reveals: Ashcroft alleged in 2005 that Baldwin took cocaine at the Conservative Party conference in 2001. (It only took Lord Ashcroft four years to realise taking cocaine is illegal, apparently. Is taking cocaine legal in Belize?)

OK: there is a point here - which is the Project Blueprint research just published by Lord Ashcroft into Conservative voters, considerers, rejecters and defectors. This report considers the policy implications as we head into the next election.

And 2015 is coming towards us hard and fast. All the political parties should read this document closely, because while Ashcroft’s strategy of targeting marginals failed last time, political switchers rather than tribalists are where elections get won and lost.

That is the group Ashcroft’s research considers.

He is a realist about the Conservatives’ AV referendum-boosted performance in the local elections, noting that, ”we should be aiming to move beyond our 2010 share of 37 per cent to a level above 40 per cent that is usually needed for outright victory. Viewed from this perspective, the fact that the Conservatives are just about holding their own offers limited comfort.

“On the other side of the equation, while the Conservatives struggle to piece together two fifths of the electorate, Labour’s core support plus left-leaning former Lib Dems could theoretically give Ed Miliband close to 40 per cent of the vote without needing to get out of bed”.

The NHS occupies a crucial place in the research. First, Ashcroft notes that “the research also found a gender gap. Women were consistently and significantly less enthusiastic about the Conservative Party and the government’s performance, and more concerned about the cuts, than men”. This matters greatly in the NHS, with its high level of female workforce, and more broadly because of women’s vast role in providing informal care.

The whole passage which focuses on the NHS explicitly is also required reading: ”For many potential Conservative voters who doubt the party’s intentions, the NHS serves as a litmus test. Many in our research believed the NHS was subject to cuts, though the government maintains its budget is being protected and increased. Most people were sceptical of the proposed reforms, and those who had noticed that some health professionals opposed them tended to take the same view. Nobody seemed to know is why the reforms were needed and how, even in theory, they were supposed to improve things for patients”.

Wow. That is pretty damning. It’s salutary to take a step out of the health policy trenches, and look at that as something written in an important document by a Conservative supporter and major donor.

Ashcroft writes also that the research’s ”complex segmentation analysis has actually revealed that the things that will build and maintain the Conservative voting coalition are the economy, David Cameron, welfare, crime, the NHS, and a demonstration that the Conservative Party shares people’s values”.

So an issue that is currently seen as a mess by potential Conservative voters sampled is also the fifth-highest priority for keeping this crucial group as voters. Mmm.

Actual Conservative voters, the document notes, ”tended to think the NHS was a higher priority for them than it was for the government. It was hard to see how the government could be improving the NHS while subjecting it to cuts (only a few recalled the coalition promising the NHS budget would be protected).

“There was a good deal of uncertainty and concern about the proposed structural reforms, particularly over whether GPs were the right people to be managing such large budgets, and some were worried that the plans would involve “privatisation”.

“Nobody understood how the proposals were intended to benefit patients: “They’re scrapping PCTs and giving more power to GPs. I think it’s a bad idea – they’ve got a lot on their plate”; “I think they think they are improving it, but they are cutting at the rock face rather than the bureaucracy. When wards are losing beds, they are the wrong cuts”; “GPs will control the budget. It will tie them up with things that are not their job”; “They’re talking about putting GPs in charge of everything. It’s OK if you’ve got a good GP, but what if you’ve got a rubbish GP?”

“Considerers had similar opinions about current policies but were more entrenched in their view that the Conservatives did not regard the NHS as a high priority, or were actively hostile”.

Perceived priority was also an issue for the ‘considerer’ group surveyed: ”dealing with crime and improving the NHS were the fourth and fifth priorities, with 79% and 75% respectively saying they were a high or very high priority. However, they saw these issues as being seventh and eighth on the Conservatives’ priority list, with 43% and 42% respectively naming them in the top two categories … Considerers were much less likely to think anything would be better under a Conservative government. A majority thought there would be no real difference in every policy area, but in four cases – the NHS, schools, taxes and protecting the environment – they were more likely to think a Conservative government with an overall majority would handle things worse than better”.

One other nugget about ‘defectors’ is also intriguing: ”the factors at work in defectors’ decision not to vote Conservative (the economy, the NHS and views of David Cameron) were not the same as the factors that determined which party they said they would vote for instead”.

It’s interesting stuff, and chimes with what Guardian political editor Nicholas Watt and others have written about No 10’s in-house poll person Andrew Cooper telling Mr Cameron: the NHS is a vulnerable, far-from-neutralised issue for the Conservative brand.

Indeed, the White Paper and Bill have taken the Conservatives’ NHS brand-comfort rating from detox to retox in a style to put Pete Doherty to shame.

Ashcroft concludes by writing, ”Project Blueprint does not end here. Over time I intend to track the changing size and nature of the Conservative voting coalition, the strength of support in its different elements – including the enthusiasm of 2010 Tories – and ultimately the prospects of achieving an overall majority in four years. We will see whether the government is being seen to deliver, and whether it is getting the credit for tough decisions or the blame for tough times. And the project will remind people that it is the coalition of voters that matters, not the coalition of parties. As always, my message to the politicians is: it’s not about you, it’s about them”.

His future reports will be well worth reading.