Once bitten, twice shy. Lord Ashcroft is a veteran of bruising encounters with some in the media and the Labour party. That hostility, chronicled in his memoir, Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, burned out long ago. Since then, Michael Ashcroft – one-time Conservative party treasurer, deputy chairman and major party donor – has appeared to rise, phoenix-like, above the political fray.
In his latest incarnation as a master pollster and all-round éminence grise, he and his work are held in respect across the political spectrum. Either by virtue of the drubbing that his adversaries once tried to inflict on him, or because of the magisterial niche he now occupies, he is a wary interviewee.
More accurately, Lord Ashcroft is a non-interviewee. He does not, any longer, do interviews as such. On the very few occasions that he agrees to a dialogue, he stipulates a format of written questions and answers. None the less, he rings me (repeatedly, because I am in the car and keep getting cut off) to propose a third way. As well as replying in writing to Fabian questioning, he and I will talk informally.
This formula may be a rare if not unique concession, but it does not sound like Ashcroft Unplugged either. He is, however, franker on paper than I expect, assessing the respective leaders’ and parties’ faults and failings with grim impartiality. Smell the Coffee, his post mortem pamphlet on the 2005 election, concluded that the Tory “brand problem” meant that its policies had no impact on voters “who mistrust our motivation and doubt our ability to deliver.”
Almost ten years on, he believes that party has not remedied its central defect. “I think you would have to conclude that progress has been pretty limited, in that the feeling of Tories being out of touch with ordinary people is still there.”
To say that modernisation has failed is, in his view, to miss the point. “Being a modern party isn’t something you can just cross off the to-do list. Modernisation came to be symbolised by the husky trip, but that’s not what it’s all about. It means continuously being in touch with people and their priorities. Much easier said than done, of course.”
Ed Miliband, he argues, has also failed to address his party’s weaknesses. “[Labour’s] brand was not as badly broken in 2010 as the Conservative brand had been in 1997. People still thought the party’s heart was in the right place. But Labour did have big problems, and one thing that has surprised me about Ed Miliband is how little he has done to tackle them.”
Besides suggesting that Miliband be tougher on welfare reform, he cites voters’ worry about whether the party can be trusted with the economy. “I’m not sure opposing every single government cut is the best way to win back confidence on that score. We have to assume Ed knows all this, which must mean these positions are deliberate.”
Ashcroft, who last year attended the Labour conference (a visit that might once have been deemed a perilous foray behind enemy lines), has not altered the view he expressed then that “[Ed] evidently decided quite early on that in order to win he did not need to reach out any further, or offer much more in the way of reassurance. With narrower poll leads since the Budget, I think that judgment is called into question.”
Of the three main party leaders, Nick Clegg attracts what sounds the bleakest verdict. Asked how ‘sticky’ defections to Labour will prove from the Lib Dems, he says: “It looks quite sticky so far, and I think there is a limit to what Nick Clegg can do about it … The problem is they always had an unsustainable coalition of voters.”
As he points out, voters pleased they ended up in office would look askance at any rupture in the coalition, while “[the Lib Dems] would be unlikely to win back many of their former left-leaning supporters, who still blame them for putting the Tories in office. And they are not going to win back the ‘none of the above’ brigade because they no longer qualify as a protest party.”
Skewered indeed. But though Ashcroft is always frank, he is never personal. Or so I think until we speak. He rings from a hotel room in New York, where he has settled down with a Starbucks latte. His secretary has passed on my message asking him to call early, he says, and he has heeded that request. Courteous as he is, and much more willing than I had imagined to talk about himself, he is careful – where political strategy is concerned – not to exceed the boundaries he has set. As a pollster, he sees himself as expert in surveying the battlefield but unwilling ever to fight the war, lest he breach the divide between the objective pollster and the subjective strategist. Nor does he deem it proper to tell the Tories what they should be doing.
That may come as news to successive Tory leaders. John Major had to pay back a £3 million loan at Ashcroft’s request, Michael Howard received a stinging post-election verdict and Ashcroft has been labelled David Cameron’s “most damaging critic”. William Hague, his great friend and patron and the keynote speaker at Ashcroft’s 60th birthday party (a black tie dinner for 700 guests at a Park Lane hotel) described him as “one of the worst people in the world to have as your enemy … and the best person in the world to have as your friend.”
Ashcroft might subscribe to that verdict, acknowledging that some who do not know him regard him very arrogant but pointing out that those who meet him end up feeling more kindly disposed. Of desire or of necessity, he has mellowed, well aware that a pollster’s lot is to reach beyond the Tory cocoon and talk to people from across the political spectrum.
On the Labour front, his polling has suggested some optimism for ‘Blue Labour’ voices within the party, reflecting voters’ concern with immigration and support for a more contributory welfare system. Does Blue Labour hold electoral possibilities for Ed Miliband?
“Most people will not have come across the phrase ‘one nation’ … That is even more true for ‘Blue Labour’. [But] if you read quite deeply about politics, you will find some interesting and even quite unexpected things being said by Jon Cruddas and people like Stella Creasy on extending consumer protection to public services, or Liz Kendall being on the side of users rather than public sector producers.” So yes, it would seem that Ashcroft thinks there will be votes in the devolution of power championed by Cruddas and his ilk and increasingly promoted by the leader.
Unsurprisingly, Ashcroft thinks more should be done on welfare and immigration if voters are to be persuaded. “Do I think there are electoral possibilities for Labour in the ‘blue’ agenda? Potentially yes. Do I think Labour are embracing it? Not to the extent that most voters will have noticed.”
At the time of our interview, one of the movement’s most pivotal figures, Miliband’s community organising chief, Arnie Graf, remains in Baltimore to the dismay of those who miss his influence on the ground. With those close to Miliband adamant that a full programme of work awaits him here, the reasons for his absence have not been explained.
Visa difficulties or marginalisation from forces within the party have both been cited as possible explanations. Ashcroft, who has previously appeared on a platform with Graf, is a big supporter of community organising in marginal seats, believing that it will play an important part in election results. While he has no inside track on the Graf story, experience has taught him that long-term projects get sacrificed to short-term expediency. Parties are always prone, in his view, to jettison the transformative as too difficult or too costly. David Cameron’s dalliance with the ‘big society’ is perhaps a case in point.
Friends say he chafes that the Tories, who should have a 20-year-plan to attract young voters and ethnic minorities, are incubating no plans to enlist either group. Similarly, his warmth towards Cruddas and Graf’s methods will certainly reflect what the voters are telling him. Indeed, a pollster’s business, in his view, is purely to read the voter’s mind. The verdicts he articulates are theirs, not his.
He fiercely rejects, for example, erroneous suggestions that he is against gay marriage – the issue that apparently provoked him to withdraw funding from Cameron. The merits of the case are immaterial. What matters is the effect at the ballot box and what drives the voter. Since gay marriage is perceived as a metropolitan crusade antipathetic to many grassroots Tories, Cameron – in Ashcroft’s view – should have been more reflective.
This brand of applied morality begs the question of whether polling is useful armour for a famously private man. While Ashcroft and his numbers are hardly to be compared with Moses and the tablets of stone, he is also handing down someone else’s verdicts. In a democracy where the voter is king, the power of the pollster is assured. But relaying the views of others also bestows a patina of anonymity that might, I guess, appeal to someone who has often seemed an outsider. The child of a humble background (his parents met at the Blackpool Winter Gardens where his father was convalescing after being wounded on D-Day), he was a lonely schoolboy and a college failure who does not quite seem to fit the old Etonian template of the modern Tory party. Late in life, he appears to have found his chosen metier. Polling, his passion and hobby, has so enthralled him that he would much rather spend his political budget on research than give it to the Conservative party. While he keeps open the possibility of future donations, he has other outlets for the colossal fortune he acquired as a self-made businessman.
A signatory to the Warren Buffett Giving Pledge, requiring billionaires to donate generously and bequeath the bulk of their wealth to charity, his most conspicuous material outlay has been the collection of Victoria Crosses – a homage to his war veteran father and to bravery in general – that he gave to the Imperial War Museum.
Although he is wary of labels such as “Compassionate” and “Little Guy” he has some sympathy for the ideas promoted by modernising Tories chasing the blue collar vote. “Some of the ideas that have emerged under that heading are definitely worth pursuing.” He warns, however, against populism and piecemeal policies.
“You can’t concentrate on the micro stuff at the expense of the macro: you have to be able to talk about both. It matters to people that big decisions are being made about managing the economy. I think this is actually the key to the election … People are much more likely to think the economy is recovering than they are to feel any benefit themselves. The Conservatives need to … explain how the ‘long term economic plan’ is connected to people’s personal fortunes.
“I think Labour have the reverse of this problem. I suspect the ‘cost of living crisis’ will start to have diminishing returns for Miliband. Complaining about how expensive things are isn’t really a programme for government. Promising to freeze energy prices is an unashamedly populist policy, but it leaves people wondering if it could work and whether Labour can be trusted with the bigger decisions.”
The holy grail of a 45 per cent election vote share, to which only Thatcher and Blair got close, becomes ever harder. As he says “there isn’t a sort of optimal manifesto that would suddenly bring people together in a spirit of national unity and unlock an unassailable majority. But it is obviously about building a broad coalition of voters.” Drumbeat messaging and the endless repetition of slogans such as ‘one nation’ and ‘cost of living crisis’ may repel voters who “increasingly react against mantras”.
That, however, is nothing compared with their antipathy to party leaders. Recent Ashcroft polling found that women see Ed Miliband as slimy and boring, Nick Clegg as spineless and wet and David Cameron as posh, out of touch and rich. Suffice to say that none has yet projected the image or found the language that voters understand. “It has to be clear, authentic, believable and ideally about people and the country and what you are going to do for them … not about why your opponents are evil incarnate.”
Nigel Farage is perhaps the only party leader who could claim to meet those criteria. Ashcroft – who has met Miliband only once, in the nave at the Thatcher funeral – once spent a weekend on the Queen Elizabeth with Farage and found him to be good company and humorous. He privately predicted that Farage would walk away with a debating victory against Nick Clegg and is said to consider UKIP a threat to all three main parties, not least the Lib Dems.
In a 20,000 sample Europe poll, Ashcroft found “more voters switching to UKIP from the Lib Dems than from Labour.” Though the Tories have most to lose, no leader can afford to be sanguine. Ashcroft thinks “UKIP are here to stay – or at least that is their intention. If they were really all about withdrawing from the EU, they would support the only election outcome that could give them the referendum they want, namely a Tory government. The better they do next year, the less likely that is to happen, which suggests their objective is to become a permanent fixture on the political scene.”
Ashcroft is also thinking beyond the next election. His forthcoming book on Cameron, scheduled for publication after May 2015, has raised questions about whether he is planning an obituary. His explanation is that he has published a pamphlet after successive Tory election defeats but has never before been in the position to chronicle the life of a serving prime minister. Questions about whether he will be investigating issues such as allegations of drug-taking in the past are always parried by the reply that this will be a full biography.
Quake as Cameron might, Ashcroft also has some words of reassurance. Asked about who might be the next leader of the Tories, he says: “the only polling I’ve done … was on the Boris factor. And it was quite clear that for all his qualities, the idea that he would boost Tory fortunes at a stroke is somewhat misplaced. Cameron is still the party’s biggest asset.”
As for potential Miliband successors, “the internal workings of the party are a mystery to most of the people in it, let alone outsiders.” An outsider he may be, but polling has given Ashcroft unparalleled access to the voters’ minds.
Although he hates being asked to predict surprises, his watch list includes “seeing how Ukipers and Lib Dem defectors start to make their minds up in the marginals; the state of coalition relations as the election gets closer; whether the Tories overreact to the result of the European elections and how long the Ukip bounce takes to recede; the consumer confidence index; how people react to further spending cuts; and whether England win the World Cup.”
Into that melting pot, he would throw Cameron’s “advantage” over Miliband as a plausible PM and – in Labour’s favour – the “tribal” nature of the party’s voters. Beyond such truisms lie the point where every wise oracle keeps his options open. Lord Ashcroft does not deviate from that rule.
“Since the coalition was formed it has looked hard for the Tories to win, but if I were Ed Miliband, I would want to be a lot further ahead with a year to go. I said at the Labour conference that this could be the closest election in forty years, and nothing has happened to change my mind.”
This interview originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of the Fabian Review.