Is Lord Ashcroft trying to carve out a niche for himself as the Rupert Murdoch of polling? In recent weeks Ashcroft’s started playing hard to get with the Conservatives while flirting with Labour. The pollster has distanced himself from the Conservative Party and stopped donating to them. Considering he’s donated £10 million to the Tories during Cameron’s leadership, that’s no small development. And there are reports that he’s met with Labour’s election strategist Douglas Alexander to discuss election strategy – much to the Labour leadership’s surprise.
For decades, securing the best media coverage has been thought of as crucial to parties’ electoral success. Lord Mandelson, in his witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry offered this on the subject: “In the run up to the 1997 election, naturally I was aware of the efforts being made to secure a friendly attitude by News International towards Labour but I was more on the margins of this activity as it was conducted principally by Mr. Blair and his press staff.”
It’s not just getting positive coverage that’s important any more though. Getting the best data on policies, party preferences, voters and so on is crucial. If you’ve got rich and accurate data, you can tailor campaigns and messaging much more effectively than if you’ve got outdated and superficial data. Obama’s presidential campaigns are the best examples of high quality data-based campaigning. In the UK, the very detailed data that the Lib Dems had in the Eastleigh by-election was widely reported as one of the most important reasons for their victory and the lack of it being a cause of the Tories’ demise.
Getting better data than your opponents means doing better polling than your opponents. And Ashcroft is the individual best placed to offer the systems and funding needed to do the highest quality polling. It’s at least possible that Ashcroft’s realised that it’s at least as important that parties have good data as good media coverage and that he can position himself as the pollster that parties should try to ‘secure a friendly attitude with.’
The Leveson Inquiry concluded that Murdoch hadn’t sought political favours in return for positive media coverage. At the very least, we’re going to see accusations of parties trying to accommodate Ashcroft politically to make use of his polling in the same way that we did with Murdoch.
Ashcroft has already shown himself to be someone who gave money to the Tories when he thought they would promote policies he liked, then stopped his donations when things weren’t going his way. It’s arguable then that he’s similarly someone who’d offer his polling to parties and leaders he gets on with and withdraw it from those he doesn’t. As John McCain, Mitt Romney and the Eastleigh Tories have found out, it’s tough to win elections without the best data.
It’s important that the parties find ways of building up the detailed and rich data they need without being beholden to a particularly powerful and well-off pollster. How to do that is a question for another day but – in the spirit that when you identify a problem you should at least try to offer a solution – one way that could be done would be using their members to crowdsource the data. Members and volunteers would, I suppose, do the polling and then data analysts employed by the parties would draw out the lessons and electoral strategies. Now there’s a way to avoid the need for a Leveson-esque inquiry into the unhealthy relationship between politicians and data analysts in ten/twenty/thirty years.