Lord Ashcroft has published a recontact survey of people who were contacted in the original Populus poll of Oldham East and Saddleworth voters. Full tabs are here and Ashcroft’s own commentary here. The poll confirms the churn underlying the by-election result – of 2010 Lib Dem voters, only 55% of those who voted in the by-election stuck with the party, with 29% instead defecting to Labour. The main reasons given by these defectors were, unsurprisingly, unhappiness with the Liberal Democrats’ decisions to go into coalition, or unhappiness with the specific policies of the coalition.
This drop in Lib Dem support was cancelled however out by Conservative tactical voting: of 2010 Conservative voters, 33% who voted in the by-election ended up backing the Liberal Democrats. Just under half of those who switched to voting for Elwyn Watkins explicitly said this was a tactical vote.
As was speculated before the election, the publication of the ICM and Populus polls showing the Lib Dems in a clear second place probably did encourage further tactical voting – 20% of those people who told Populus the week before the election that they would vote Conservative went on to vote for Elwyn Watkins.
In Lord Ashcroft’s commentary he addresses the claims that the Conservatives could have been the main challengers in the seat had they campaigned earlier and more enegetically. Personally my opinion was always that the seat was utterly unwinnable for the Conservatives anyway – the Conservative party does not win by-elections from third place behind the Liberal Democrats anyway, the idea of them doing it when they are (a) in government, (b) behind in the national polls and (c) the seat starts out as an ultra-marginal between the other two is fanciful.
Nevertheless, Lord Ashcroft suggests this poll backs up the argument that the Conservatives could not have positioned themselves as the best party to beat Labour if they’d just fought a bit harder. First because those contacted by the Conservatives were not significantly more likely to vote Conservative. Secondly because almost half of voters have decided before the campaign began who they would vote for – not, in my view, a particularly good bit of evidence – firstly because that means half the electorate decided during the campaign, secondly because just because in the event those people’s intentions did not change, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that they could have if the campaign had been different.
Thirdly, and most convincingly, because Populus asked those people who voted tactically how they got the impression that the Liberal Democrats rather than the Tories were best placed to beat Labour. Only 9% said this was through the Liberal Democrat campaign – 65% said it was because of the result of the last election, and they had either remembered themselves or seen in the media how close it was between Labour and the Lib Dems in May 2010. A deficit of only 103 votes is almost unsurmountable evidence that you are the party best placed to challenge the frontrunner.