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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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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