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.