Saturday 3 October 2009

Ashcroft polls the nation

The PoliticsHome "electoral index" poll offered the beleagured website as chance to try to put on-going controversy over its purchase by Conservative deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft to one side as it launched its biggest polling exercise of the year.

And so the website hit on the cunning ruse of giving an exclusive to The Guardian this morning.

It was doubtless hoping to re-establish their bona fides with liberal-left opinion, following the resignation of The Observer's Andrew Rawnsley as PH editor-in-chief and at least three dozen others, and the site's discovery that only one in five of both the non-aligned and left-leaning participants in its own work express confidence in its editorial independence. (So the Guardian jumping at the story following the Rawnsley resignation may cause a few raised eyebrows, given that it is usually the Guardian end of the gleaming King's Place empire which is keenest on integration).

Did the plan work?

Only up to a point, Lord Ashcroft.

The coverage probably did more to dramatise the PoliticsHome site's reputational problems than to resolve them, suggesting that these will continue to cast a shadow over any flagship political initiatives which the site attempts.

Strikingly, the Guardian did not at all seek to emulate the all-singing front-page splash and inside spread treatment which the poll received in The Observer the previous year. Only seven months from an election day, the largest ever opinion poll in the UK was relegated to page 14, with the paper placing much emphasis on YouGov's independence and credibility to mitigate concern about the damage done to the PoliticsHome brand.

By the second sentence, the newspaper report had to address the awkward tensions between Lord Ashcroft's partisan role as chief funder of the Tories' marginal seat push and his role as propreitor of the supposedly non-partisan website.

Today's survey of marginal seats reveals the sort of data usually only seen by campaign strategists deep inside party headquarters.

Conducted by the independent polling company YouGov for, it will certainly give the website's new owner, Lord Ashcroft, much to ponder.

As the Conservatives' deputy chairman, he has been responsible for directing the party's campaigning in key areas, so he is bound to be cheered by some of the poll results.

I don't see any reason at all to doubt the integrity of the polling itself, given the involvement of YouGov. But that does not necessarily mean that PoliticsHome can brush off a number of questions about potential conflicts arising from their new ownership over exercises of this sort.

I have more questions than answers about that at this stage, so have put a number of questions to the website editor, who has acknowledged that the site has much work to do if it is to publish sceptics and critics of its professionalism and independence. (I will publish the email in a separate post).

I will elaborate on just one of the points for now. The change of timing of this year's poll seems slightly odd. This point was made well in a contribution from a posted called jsfl on a PoliticalBetting thread a couple of weeks ago.

Isn’t the timing of the poll just a bit off this year? It would make sense to me if either they completed the fieldwork and published the poll before the conference season as a baseline or they undertook the poll after conference season (I marginally prefer the former) so reflecting the initial situation when Parliament returns. By doing it the way they have done this year aren’t they at risk of making the poll to some extent out of date virtually as soon as it is published?

I am sure the Conservatives will be rather pleased to see the poll released on the opening day of their conference, but I am sceptical as to whether the change would have been politically motivated. Certainly, the party's media allies have been keen to make interventions to help the party - as Rupert Murdoch and The Sun did on Wednesday morning - but it would be pretty daft of PoliticsHome to be already playing the same game this Autumn, when facing so many questions about trust and the lack of any external verification of their editorial integrity.

So I would be inclined to accept the idea that the timing is simply a happy coincidence for the party.

Still, I wonder why the fieldwork wasn't done in time for the poll to be published before the conference season, as last year, as would make rather more sense in news terms. (It was done for publication on Sunday 21st September in 2008, and the Labour and Tory conferences were almost a full week later this year).

One possible hypothesis - given that the site is thought to have been in significant financial difficulties before the Ashcroft cash injection - is that perhaps the takeover deal needed to be at an advanced stage and close to completion before the green light could be given for the expensive polling fieldwork to go ahead this year.

But if it were true that Ashcroft's investment is essential for PoliticsHome to carry out large flagship projects of this type, then the need to address concerns about conflicts of interest would seem to me to become sharper still.

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