The Standard's decision to go free will spook the nationals

Lebedev's contrarian move has caught the nationals off guard

Alexander Lebedev's decision to transform the London Evening Standard into a free newspaper from 12 October is certainly a contrarian one. It comes at a time when significant sections of the industry, notably Rupert Murdoch's News International and the Financial Times, are determined to develop new forms of paid-for journalism and shortly after the closure of one of the Standard's free-sheet rivals, the London Paper.

With London Lite, whose whole raison d'être was to take on Murdoch's London Paper, poised to suffer an early death, it was thought the Standard would be free to recoup the readers and advertisers who had migrated elsewhere. Instead, the Russian oligarch has surprised us all.

Lebedev's willingess to forgo £15m worth of income from the cover price is based on the optimistic assumption that ad revenue will eventually return to previous heights. The decision to increase the paper's distribution from 250,000 to 600,000 copies a day will assist this cause but it remains an unreliable gamble.

Yet the implications of the Standard's decision stretch far beyond the London market. If the paper maintains something close to its present quality it is likely that many readers will abandon their national titles of choice. Lebedev's bold declaration that "the London Evening Standard is the first leading quality newspaper to go free and I am sure others will follow" suggests that the Independent would become a free title if ever he acquired it. A paper with the Standard's history and prestige that is prepared to market itself aggressively represents a potent threat to the future of several national titles.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.