This doesn't tell us much about what will happen at the General Election. It does help to explain why the outcome of May's referendum on the Alternative Vote will probably depend on what Labour voters decide. The race is open, in part because it is difficult to predict where Labour voters will end up.
In a neck-and-neck YouGov poll (Yes 37, No 38) on 8th February, the LibDems were overwhelming for (Yes 84-10) and the Tories split 28-53 (almost 2:1 for No). Labour voters were 34-45 against AV.
In the ComRes poll on Sunday, the Yes camp were 10 points ahead - 40 to 30. Here the LibDems split 6:1 in favour of a Yes vote (by 66-11%) while Tories were 43-28 for No. Labour voters were 40-28 for Yes, with voters of other parties being yes too (more narrowly for UKIP 46-29 than the Greens 62-16).
The Yes campaign is stressing a 'people against the politicians' theme. This may well be a good messaging strategy. But there are unlikely to be an enormous number of politically disengaged participants who are different to those who routinely vote in local and European elections. So reaching Labour voters with people they trust will matter a lot, not least because the largest single group of voters (those who tell pollsters they plan to vote Labour next time) have also been the most open to changing their minds on this issue. A good part of the poll volatility on AV has reflected shifts among Labour voters, who have been for and against at different times, while LibDem Yes and Conservative No majorities are broadly consistent.
There must now be a good chance of Tory opinion hardening against AV, given that there are very few if any prominent Tories promoting a Yes vote. (UKIP arguing vocally for AV could potentially influence some Tory 'sceptic opinion). It is a sign of the shallowness or political weakness of the Tory Mods that pro-Cameron 'outriders' who want the Coalition to continue beyond the next election think briefing newspapers that are advocating a 'No' vote but aren't too fussed about the result is somehow a bold modernising move.
What does the potentially decisive role of the Labour vote mean for both the Yes and No campaigns on electoral reform?
1. It will help the Yes campaign if Ed Miliband and other leading Labour voices are prominent in the media on this issue.
Ed Miliband's Guardian piece sets out why he thinks AV is an important change.
Leading Labour figures are naturally stressing the need to concentrate on the local elections. It is worth 'local elections first Labour' advocates remembering that one significant 'up for grabs' group of voters in the local elections - those who voted LibDem in May 2010 but don't support the Clegg-Cameron coalition agenda - remain strongly in favour of an AV yes. They are more likely to decide they can vote for and feel at home Labour party which supports a different approach to the economy and cuts, but is open to political reform.
Douglas Alexander's argument that the electoral system is one reason for the narrow casting of general elections to 150,000 voters in 100 constituencies, as explaining why issues such as social housing get less attention than they merit, struck me as a good way to begin to connect the AV choice to social outcomes, and to acknowledge a political sense of disconnection of the non-metropolitan Labour vote. The challenge for Labour Yes advocates is to animate that in campaigning.
Whether the leading Shadow Cabinet members give the impression that the party is primarily on the Yes side, while respecting the range of views in the party, or is evenly divided, as Labour No voices like John Prescott will want to project, may make some difference to how Labour voters themselves divide.
2. It will help the No campaign if Conservative opponents of change keep a relatively low profile, except where they can specifically reach Tory voters who are undecided. It will help the Yes campaign to stress Tory support and involvement.
More broadly, it will make sense for the Yes campaign to put as much effort as possible into persuading AV-agnostic Labour voters. Labour voters, particularly those who do not have strong views on AV, may also be the group which may be tempted to cast a vote aimed at protesting the government - but they would then still need to decide whether that means voting against David Cameron's Tory-led coalition or Nick Clegg's supporting role within it.
With these voters, the No campaign will try to make the referendum about Nick Clegg supporting a Yes vote; the No campaign need to make it as much about David Cameron and George Osborne's Tory party wanting a No vote. It might help to make George Osborne a prominent focus of this argument, with voters who are angry about spending cuts.
3. It will damage the Yes campaign and help the No campaign if the LibDems prioritise attacking Labour on the economy and cuts during the local election campaigns.
This will particularly be the case if Nick Clegg is attacking Labour over the deficit or spending cuts in language that the Conservatives could easily use, such as charging Labour with "deficit denial" for what the LibDems themselves argued as a deficit strategy before the election, instead of disagreeing over the economy while respecting that different deficit reduction strategies are honestly held.
This may be challenging for the LibDem national leadership, and for local groups where there are fierce LibDem-Labour battles, especially if No may have stronger Labour support in Lab-Lib batlegrounds such as Sheffield. (Labour No voices will have a strategic interest in taking opportunities to increase Labour-LibDem antagonism further, and a lower focus on Labour-Tory arguments; there are many Labour voices who disagree, and want the focus on the battle against the Tories, but who are often crowded out whenever the debate gets shoutier).
So a range of LibDem voices - from Vince Cable in the government to non-government voices with a national profile like Simon Hughes, might help to shift the tone or balance of LibDem advocacy. It might help the Yes campaign if well-known LibDems who are not strongly associated with the government - such as Charles Kennedy, perhaps also Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams - who play a more prominent role, where politicians are campaigning together across party boundaries, alongside those Green and Labour voices who have a broad appeal.
An alternative is to continue with the current Nick Clegg approach, which is aggressive towards Labour, no doubt justified by returning fire with fire given the levels of hostility and antagonism towards Nick Clegg. This certainly will hurt the chances of Labour supporters who think the case for AV is a good one on its merits convincing their activists and voters. It will overall reduce the chances of a Yes vote for AV. So that probably means entails an assessment that the referendum doesn't particularly matter. Matthew d'Ancona wrote yesterday that this was indeed Clegg's view. Others in his party may disagree.
Beyond the narrow confines of their respective roles as tribal chieftains — neither Cameron nor Clegg regards this referendum as a first-order issue. It is the settling of a credit card bill, the delivery of a promise that was the inevitable price of Lib-Dem participation in the Coalition. Clegg could not possibly have sold the alliance with Cameron to his party without such a commitment. But — as Deputy Prime Minister — he is much more committed to social mobility (the great Clegg preoccupation), to the defence of civil liberties, and to the transformation of the Lib-Dems from a party of protest to a party of government. Cameron is much less concerned by the risk of a “Yes” vote on May 5 than he is by the success or failure
of George Osborne’s deficit reduction plan, Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare
reform and his own Big Society programme.