12-point lead opens up for AV

One in four already want electoral reform on 5 May.

That the Times is not keen on the Alternative Vote is clear by the way it covers a specially commissioned Populus poll in today's paper. A sceptical leading article (£) and a piece of commentary by the deputy political editor, Sam Coates, entitled "Doubt creeps in when voters are told what AV change will mean" (£) disguise a stunning finding: 41 per cent of respondents said they would vote for AV. That's a 12-point lead over first-past-the-post.

Now there are, as Coates points out, many caveats. First, 30 per cent of voters are undecided, giving both the No and Yes campaigns plenty of influencing to do. Second, the 41 per cent is based on those answering the question that will be presented to them on referendum day, 5 May. Specifically:

Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?

As the Times discovered, when you asked a slightly more involved question the numbers changed. Populus asked a second group whether it wanted a system where

voters number the candidates they like in order of preference, and the candidate who gets more than half the support of the voters in the constituency is elected.

In this instance, 43 per cent said they would stick with first-past-the-post while 29 per cent said they wanted a change to AV. Intriguing stuff, but it doesn't alter the fact that based on the question that will be asked, four in ten are already in favour. There is little doubt that, had the poll been commissioned by a paper more open to AV, the nature of the coverage would have been very different.

Regardless, the pro and anti campaigns now know what they need to do. In the words of Mike Smithson at PoliticalBetting:

the big challenge for YES is explaining the change in a way that doesn't sound threatening. For NO it is the opposite.

Those battle lines were drawn yesterday in almost concurrent speeches by Nick Clegg and David Cameron. My colleague George Eaton offered a point-by-point rebuttal of the Tory leader's speech. Read it.

UPDATE: Sam Coates has been in touch to say he thinks I've been a little unfair in my representation of the Times coverage. He writes: "I made the strong findings for the pro-AV camp the top of the story. I urge you to reread the text." Well, you can do so here, if you can get over the paywall. The quality of the analysis wasn't really my point; it was the way the poll was covered – the headline, the leading article and the difficulty (online at least) to find the story at all. Anyway, happy to reflect Sam's views here.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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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.