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 can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.