It’s now a month since Lord Ashcroft’s pollsters surveyed political opinion in Cambridge and concluded that the Lib Dems had a nine-point lead over Labour:
As I’ve previously discussed, a significant feature of this poll was the fact that it found only a very small sample of voters in the 18-24 age group, who were very heavily pro-Lib-Dem:
Furthermore, many Cambridge students were away for the vacations at the time that the poll was conducted. However, we’ve since had no fewer than three surveys of student political opinion in Cambridge, one from High Fliers Research, a graduate recruitment research organisation, and two from Cambridge student newspapers, TCS and Varsity. All three paint a very different picture from the Ashcroft poll.
Before looking at these surveys, it’s worth sounding a note of caution. Lord Ashcroft’s poll was conducted by a professional polling organisation following the British Polling Council’s rules, using weighting to reflect Cambridge demographics, and with all the data tables published. This didn’t apply to any of the student surveys, though in their favour they did all survey a much larger proportion of the target population than a typical opinion poll would. Another factor is that the student newspaper surveys were self-selecting, meaning that students actively chose to participate. This means that to some extent these surveys are measuring how good the different student political organisations are at getting their members and supporters to participate in them. This will certainly vary by party – Labour has a particularly large and well-organised student association, CULC, whereas the Conservative student association, CUCA, has recently issued a statement condemning “alleged comments” made by the Conservative candidate. In addition, all three surveys covered only University of Cambridge students, not those attending Anglia Ruskin – and there are of course many Cambridge 18-24-year-olds who are attending neither institution. So the bottom line is, these surveys are very likely to have a wider margin of error than the 3% or so that’s typical for a standard opinion poll.
With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the numbers. First, here are the figures from the High Flyers survey:
This data was collected from final-year students before the Easter vacation, so in the first half of March, and managed to interview a full 20% of them, a pretty impressive sample size. The “long campaign” was well underway at the time of the survey, but students had not yet been subjected to the intensive local campaign that they are experiencing at the moment. However, it does put the Lib Dems pretty firmly in fourth place, reflecting the general student disillusionment with them following the tuition fees volte-face and five years of coalition government. Even at 12%, the Cambridge Lib Dem score was the second-highest of the 30 universities that High Fliers surveyed, and twice the average. Nevertheless, it’s still difficult to believe that Labour will really have a 19-point lead over the Lib Dems amongst this group when polling day arrives.
Here are the numbers from the TCS newspaper survey, which received 732 responses. Note that my percentages differ slightly from those in the TCS article because I’ve excluded those not voting.
The survey was released on Thursday 23rd April, so included responses from relatively recently in the campaign. Here the Lib Dems do just make it to second place, but Labour has a comfortable lead.
Finally, here are the numbers from Varsity’s survey. Unlike the other surveys, it asked students whether they planned to vote in Cambridge or in their home constituency – election law allows students to vote in either, but not both. Amongst those planning to vote in Cambridge, the results were:
This survey gives Labour an even bigger lead over the Lib Dems of nearly 13%. While the detail is different from the TCS survey, the overall picture is the same: Labour out in front ahead of a chasing pack of three, with UKIP nowhere in sight.
The obvious next question to ask is, if these surveys are more representative of 18-24-year-old opinion than the sample in Lord Ashcroft’s original poll, what effect would that have on the numbers for the overall Cambridge result? Answering this question is fraught with difficulty, because of the various factors discussed above, but let’s just cheerfully disregard them and plug the numbers into a spreadsheet to see what happens. And what happens is this:
This graphic shows what happens if you use the numbers from each of the student surveys in place of the 18-24 sample of the Ashcroft poll, leaving the other age groups unchanged. As you can see, the 9-point Lib Dem lead evaporates. With the High Fliers numbers, Daniel Zeichner comes out fractionally ahead; with the two newspaper surveys, Julian Huppert retains the slenderest of leads. But in all three cases, there is next to nothing in it. Now as I cautioned above, there are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t take this too literally. But I think the overall picture is broadly correct – the race for Cambridge MP is a lot closer than the Ashcroft poll numbers suggest.