Voters are choosing the best of a bad bunch

Two very different opinion polls yield ultimately similar results

Two very different opinion polls were published in the tabloids this morning.

A ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror shows the Tories on 38 per cent, Labour on 29 per cent, and the Lib Dems on 19. This is a drop of 4 points for the Tories since the last ComRes poll and, if repeated at the general election, would leave the Conservatives five seats short of an overall majority.

As Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report points out, this is a direct reversal of the 4-point gain seen in the last ComRes poll, and marks a return to the results shown in the previous poll.

This is in tune with the pattern that has emerged over the past few months of polling. Fluctuations of a few points that indicate either a hung parliament, or a skin-of-the-teeth majority for the Tories, are invariably heralded as a remarkable blow or triumph for one party or the other, depending on which paper you're reading. Yet all these numbers really show is a depressing lack of conviction on the part of voters, and a continued sense that we're just picking the best of a bad lot.

An ICM poll for News of the World takes a different approach, focusing exclusively on 97 Labour-held marginal seats. For the uninitiated, marginal seats are those where the incumbent holds a small majority of votes; they are theoretically easier for the opposition to win. This poll gives the Conservatives 40 per cent, a 9.2 per cent hike on the last election. Labour gets 37 per cent, which is 7.4 per cent down from 2005, and the Liberal Democrats 14 per cent, a reduction of 3.8 per cent.

There is a slightly larger swing towards the Tories in the constituencies where they really need to win than in the country as a whole. But, as Mike Smithson at PoliticalBetting points out, the poll excludes Liberal Democrat-held marginal seats, which might be tougher for the Conservatives to win.

Further details in the ICM poll confirm that the swing towards the Tories is more to do with disillusionment with the Labour government than any active enthusiasm for the Conservatives. Just 28 per cent of respondents recalled seeing signs of Conservative campaigning in their area -- roughly equivalent to the 24 per cent who recalled seeing Labour campaigning.

Of two polls published on the same day, then, one shows encouragement for Labour and one hope for the Tories. The insistence of both parties that this is the election for change does not seem to have penetrated the inertia enveloping the electorate.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation