A reformer from a bygone era: What the Cummings saga tells us about British governance

Patrick Diamond writes that the Cummings coronavirus row has wider implications for the machinery of British government. These revolve around the status of political advisers and the future of Cummings’s state reform visions.

As the row over Dominic Cummings’s breach of lockdown rules escalates, threatening to engulf the entire Johnson Administration, it is worth reflecting on the implications of the dispute for the future of British governance more generally. The big questions that arise go beyond the details of Mr Cummings’s breach and the fundamental principles of propriety, truth, and integrity in high office. They concern how the machinery of government is likely to develop in the future.

The first implication is what this case tells us about the status of political advisers in British politics. The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers published by the Cabinet Office is clear that the purpose of political advisers is ‘to add a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers’. According to the official constitutional rationale, special advisers protect the neutrality of civil servants, undertaking tasks of a political nature which – if performed by officials – would undermine their ability to serve future governments of a different political complexion. Civil servants claim to welcome the presence of special advisers who provide knowledge and insight on issues of future policy, while offering steers on the political views of Ministers. The benign interpretation is that the British system of government cultivates a mutually beneficial partnership, a ‘governing marriage’ between Ministers, officials, and political appointees.

Certainly, there have been controversial special advisers before, many of whom were forced to resign because they breached the unwritten rule that political aides must never become the media story – the most pertinent recent examples being Theresa May’s notorious aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Yet Timothy and Hill were, by and large, backroom operators who were fired ultimately because their boss was politically weakened in the aftermath of the 2017 general election debacle. Without question, it is an important moment in the development of the British political system that a special adviser such as Dominic Cummings is able to hold their own impromptu press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street, taking questions from journalists while holding court in front of the world’s media.

Indeed, paragraph 14 of the Special Advisers Code states that, ‘Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, social media, articles or leaflets. They must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks, and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department’. The function of advisers is, ‘to represent the views of their Minister to the media’, rather than to justify their own actions or personal behaviour. In this extraordinary situation, Ministers are being sent onto the airwaves to defend the position of a political adviser. This is a remarkable moment.

The implications of Cummings’s media appearance will be far-reaching. We have reached a critical juncture, constitutionally a point of no return. There is likely to be growing pressure for special advisers to give testimony where they are involved in public controversies, notably to parliamentary select committees. Cummings’s actions will bolster the arguments of those who insist special advisers have a malign impact on the conduct of government, reducing civil servants to the status of ‘passive functionaries’ and politicising public administration. Cummings is a well-known critic of the British civil service. He regards the permanent bureaucracy as slow-moving, unimaginative, cumbersome, detached from seismic shifts in the world of technology and ideas. Cummings’s explicit goal is to ‘drain the swamp’ of the Whitehall bureaucracy, moving towards a ‘them and us’ model where civil servants no longer offer advice, but merely do what Ministers tell them. Civil servants become the implementors of policy rather than the initiators of policy; delivery agents, not ministerial advisers with the capacity to ‘speak truth to power’.

The second implication of the dispute is what the row tells us about the status of the institutional innovator and disrupter in the system of government. It may well be that Cummings’s mission to rewire the British state while radically recasting the Whitehall machinery is dead in the water. His ideas about how to reorganise the state machine might be deemed necessary for an age of disruption, but he will find formidable forces of conservatism in the government machine ranged against him, just at the moment his political capital is depleted badly. One difficulty is that Cummings is attempting to orchestrate change from the centre in 10 Downing Street. In the British system of government, it is departments that usually reign supreme. Departments are the centres of decision-making power, autonomous territories where policy is formulated, budgets are allocated, and implementation is co-ordinated. Even nominally powerful prime ministers with landslide parliamentary majorities such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair discovered that departments have the capacity to thwart the will of the centre.

Another problem is that resistance to fundamental change in the government machine comes not only from civil servants, but Ministers themselves. Away from the highly politicised centre of power in Number 10, Ministers by and large work closely with their officials who they regard as problem-solvers, Machiavellian fixers, loyal courtiers, and expert bureaucrats who know about how to drive through change, navigating the byzantine rituals of Whitehall. The tension is even more acute in a Conservative government, where traditionalists favour the preservation of existing institutions, upholding the long-standing Northcote-Trevelyan principles of impartiality and merit-based appointment. At the beginning of 2020 when Cummings went public with his plan to recruit dozens of ‘weirdo’ data scientists into government supplanting ostensibly ineffectual civil servants, a Cabinet Minister told The Times:‘One of the big problems with [Cummings’s] pull the pin out of the grenade, drop it in the bunker, and see what happens approach is that it is so destabilising…we take several steps backwards before we’ve even started’.

In the world after the pandemic, it is very probable that the debate about state reform in Britain will take a quite different direction to that envisaged by the Cummings’s prospectus. The state is back as an economic actor, and as such, thirty years of antipathy to government as a force for good may be waning. It is public servants who have ensured that furlough wages and benefits are paid on time, while businesses are protected. Discussion will centre on how to restore the capacity of government to tackle major challenges from strategic risks such as future pandemics and climate change, to the long-term implications of the crisis, notably tackling public health inequalities while repurposing institutions. Unquestionably, the overly centralised nature of the British state will come under renewed scrutiny. In this climate, Cummings may well appear a reformer from a bygone era.

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About the Author

Patrick Diamond is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former Government Special Adviser.

LSE blog

A policy scandal of epic proportions: Why a public inquiry into adult social care and Covid-19 is necessary

Bob Hudson makes the case for an inquiry into the government’s slow response to protecting adult social care settings from the coronavirus pandemic. He outlines the three key issues that such an investigation will need to address and the questions it must answer.

The longer the impact of COVID-19 in the UK has continued, the more the focus of concern has fallen upon adult social care. While the NHS has been relatively protected, social care has been overwhelmed: supplies of PPE have been unavailable; testing has been patchy or non-existent; patients have been discharged from hospitals into care homes and proceeded to spread the virus; deaths among residents have reached somewhere between 30-40% of all coronavirus-related deaths; and fatalities amongst social care staff are outstripping those of healthcare workers and the wider working population.

This is a policy scandal of epic proportions and now is exactly the right time to institute a public inquiry into events. At least three issues will need to be included in such an inquiry: fragility of provision; low policy salience; and unethical policy and practice.

Fragility of provision

The fragile financial structure of the industry is such that most providers were already unable to withstand even a minor downturn in income or an increase in costs. Within weeks of the outbreak, the Care Provider Alliance (representing about half of all care providers) was warning that the sector risked collapse without emergency funding to help pay wages and buy PPE. Similarly the UK Home Care Association said the financial pressures arising from the pandemic could force a significant number of the country’s 8,000 home care providers to close. The pandemic will surely require a fundamental reappraisal of a care market consisting of thousands of independent companies making their own decisions on where to set up, what to provide, and whether or not to continue.

This widespread instability equally applies to the voluntary sector where inherent weaknesses have been starkly exposed by COVID-19. Bookings for training and services have been cancelled, charity shops closed, community fundraising halted, and (in the case of the larger charities) investment portfolios reduced in value. A survey of the sector undertaken during the lockdown period found over half saying they would be bankrupt within six months without financial help. With the sector estimating a loss of £4billion, the allocation of £750m by the Chancellor was generally seen as inadequate – a view confirmed by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee. A sustainable future for the third sector has to be part of a new settlement.

Low policy salience

Adult social care is a residual means-tested service that has always struggled to achieve political attention. This has been exacerbated by COVID-19 in two ways: the easement of statutory duties, and the perception of the sector as a handmaiden to the needs of the NHS.

Rather than ensure that local councils are adequately funded and empowered to respond to the challenges thrown up by this crisis, one of the first responses of the government was to relieve them of their existing statutory obligations. The Coronavirus Act 2020 provided for the ‘easement’ of local authority duties in England and Wales around the provision of care and support needs. This meant they would no longer have to comply with their duty under the Care Act 2014 to conduct needs assessments and provide support unless failing to do so might constitute a breach of a person’s human rights. The latter constituted a very high bar indeed.

Within weeks of the availability of these measures, eight local authorities had taken up powers of easement, even though there was emerging evidence of a decline in the number of people coming forward to seek help because of fear of contracting the virus. Concerns are now being expressed that local authorities are entering into easement without even providing evidence that they have met the necessary legal thresholds.

The tangled relationship between adult social care and the NHS has a long history, with repeated concerns that the shape of the former has increasingly been determined by the needs of the latter. This has been very evident in the response to COVID-19 with the two sectors being treated very differently in terms of the availability of testing, PPE, and even in the ways deaths are recorded and counted. However, the ‘handmaiden’ role of adult social care is best seen in the allocation to local authorities of £1.3billion to rapidly free up 15,000 hospital beds for coronavirus patients by expediting discharge from hospital back home or to alternative accommodation (notably care homes) for those patients for whom a clinical setting was no longer deemed appropriate. This decision alone threw the sector into chaos and is likely to have accounted for many thousands of deaths.

Unethical policy and practice

Over the decades there has been little reflection on the place of ethics in adult social care policy and practice, so there is some irony in the fact that it took the coronavirus outbreak to finally produce an ‘ethical framework’ for the sector. Eight principles for organising and delivering care have been identified: respect; reasonableness; minimising harm; inclusiveness; accountability; flexibility; proportionality; and community. These are useful principles to guide behaviour in any circumstances and it might be considered unfortunate that it took a global pandemic for them to be formulated. Guidance set out ‘an expectation’ that local authorities will ‘observe’ the framework, but application of these principles in the face of tightening of access to support is bound to be difficult – if not impossible – to deliver.

In the meantime, the policy response to COVID-19 has been characterised by a series of highly dubious ethical decisions. The political and scientific interest in ‘herd immunity’ (and the implied acceptance of the deaths of large numbers of older and more vulnerable people) was central to the government’s decision-making in the crucial months of February and March. It was abandoned only when it became clear in an advice paper from Imperial College London that the NHS would be overwhelmed and up to 250,000 deaths, mostly of older people, would be likely.

This assumption that the lives of vulnerable groups are of second-order importance is also evident in other policies – the absence of PPE and testing in the care sector have been noted, but the most gross ethical breach has been in the transfer of infected and untested patients from hospitals to care homes. Not only are there reports of councils refusing to release payments unless these patients are admitted, but where fatalities occur, care homes are not equipped to deal with them ethically. There is typically no GP presence, no palliation, no fluids, no syringe drivers and no staff with end of life training.

Reports also emerged of residents in some care homes for older people being categorised en masse as not requiring resuscitation should they contract the disease. The Care Quality Commission had to step in and issue a warning for the practice to stop. A similar tale applied to adults of working age, with the National Institute for Clinical Excellence being forced to change its emergency guidance to NHS doctors, after disability groups threatened legal action over what they feared could result in certain patients not getting equal access to critical care. Meanwhile, there are no reliable figures available for coronavirus-related deaths amongst working age adults with a learning disability, autism or similar conditions and disabilities. The contrast with the government’s ethical framework could not be starker.

Time for a public inquiry

All of this amounts to a very serious charge sheet indeed, one that requires accountability to be identified and justice being seen to be done. It is insufficient for the government to suggest in vague terms that these matters can be addressed in the fullness of time; they are too urgent for that. The best way to address them is through a public inquiry. Some are already claiming that this is required as a matter of law under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

As former Department of Health permanent secretary Una O’Brien has argued, the public would need to be confident that all relevant documents, minutes, emails, texts and even Zoom records were handed over to the Inquiry in a timely way. There would also need to be assurances that politicians, officials, scientific and health experts and others would give their evidence willingly, under oath and in public. And there are four questions to be answered: What has happened? Why did it happen? Who is to blame? What can be done to prevent it happening again?

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About the Author

Bob Hudson is Professor at the Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Kent

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/covid19-adult-social-care-inquiry/

Theresa May forced Grenfell investigators to lie about the cause of the fire – so she wouldn’t look bad

Theresa May forced Grenfell investigators to lie about the cause of the fire – so she wouldn’t look bad

Theresa May forced Grenfell investigators to lie about the cause of the fire – so she wouldn’t look bad


— Read on voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/11/08/theresa-may-forced-grenfell-investigators-to-lie-about-the-cause-of-the-fire-so-she-wouldnt-look-bad/

The French are right: tear up public debt – most of it is illegitimate anyway

Debt audits show that austerity is politically motivated to favour social elites. Is a new working-class internationalism in the air ?

 

Chile artist burns studetn debt

Contracts for Chilean student loans worth $500m go up in flames – the ‘imaginative auditing’ of the artist Francisco Tapia, commonly known as Papas Fritas (Fried Potatoes). Photograph: David von Blohn/REX

 

As history has shown, France is capable of the best and the worst, and often in short periods of time.

On the day following Marine Le Pen’s Front National victory in the European elections, however, France made a decisive contribution to the reinvention of a radical politics for the 21st century. On that day, the committee for a citizen’s audit on the public debt issued a 30-page report on French public debt, its origins and evolution in the past decades. The report was written by a group of experts in public finances under the coordination of Michel Husson, one of France’s finest critical economists. Its conclusion is straightforward: 60% of French public debt is illegitimate.

Anyone who has read a newspaper in recent years knows how important debt is to contemporary politics. As David Graeber among others has shown, we live in debtocracies, not democracies. Debt, rather than popular will, is the governing principle of our societies, through the devastating austerity policies implemented in the name of debt reduction. Debt was also a triggering cause of the most innovative social movements in recent years, the Occupy movement.

If it were shown that public debts were somehow illegitimate, that citizens had a right to demand a moratorium – and even the cancellation of part of these debts – the political implications would be huge. It is hard to think of an event that would transform social life as profoundly and rapidly as the emancipation of societies from the constraints of debt. And yet this is precisely what the French report aims to do.

The audit is part of a wider movement of popular debt audits in more than 18 countries. Ecuador and Brazil have had theirs, the former at the initiative of Rafael Correa’s government, the latter organised by civil society. European social movements have also put in place debt audits, especially in countries hardly hit by the sovereign debt crisis, such as Greece and Spain. In Tunisia, the post-revolutionary government declared the debt taken out during Ben Ali’s dictatorship an “odious” debt: one that served to enrich the clique in power, rather than improving the living conditions of the people.

The report on French debt contains several key findings. Primarily, the rise in the state’s debt in the past decades cannot be explained by an increase in public spending. The neoliberal argument in favour of austerity policies claims that debt is due to unreasonable public spending levels; that societies in general, and popular classes in particular, live above their means.

This is plain false. In the past 30 years, from 1978 to 2012 more precisely, French public spending has in fact decreased by two GDP points. What, then, explains the rise in public debt? First, a fall in the tax revenues of the state. Massive tax reductions for the wealthy and big corporations have been carried out since 1980. In line with the neoliberal mantra, the purpose of these reductions was to favour investment and employment. Well, unemployment is at its highest today, whereas tax revenues have decreased by five points of GDP.

The second factor is the increase in interest rates, especially in the 1990s. This increase favoured creditors and speculators, to the detriment of debtors. Instead of borrowing on financial markets at prohibitive interest rates, had the state financed itself by appealing to household savings and banks, and borrowed at historically normal rates, the public debt would be inferior to current levels by 29 GDP points.

Tax reductions for the wealthy and interest rates increases are political decisions. What the audit shows is that public deficits do not just grow naturally out of the normal course of social life. They are deliberately inflicted on society by the dominant classes, to legitimise austerity policies that will allow the transfer of value from the working classes to the wealthy ones.

French Indignants A sit-in called by Occupy France at La Défense business district in Paris. Photograph: Afp/AFP/Getty Images A stunning finding of the report is that no one actually knows who holds the French debt. To finance its debt, the French state, like any other state, issues bonds, which are bought by a set of authorised banks. These banks then sell the bonds on the global financial markets. Who owns these titles is one of the world’s best kept secrets. The state pays interests to the holders, so technically it could know who owns them. Yet a legally organised ignorance forbids the disclosure of the identity of the bond holders.

This deliberate organisation of ignorance – agnotology – in neoliberal economies intentionally renders the state powerless, even when it could have the means to know and act. This is what permits tax evasion in its various forms – which last year cost about €50bn to European societies, and €17bn to France alone.

Hence, the audit on the debt concludes, some 60% of the French public debt is illegitimate.

An illegitimate debt is one that grew in the service of private interests, and not the wellbeing of the people. Therefore the French people have a right to demand a moratorium on the payment of the debt, and the cancellation of at least part of it. There is precedent for this: in 2008 Ecuador declared 70% of its debt illegitimate.

The nascent global movement for debt audits may well contain the seeds of a new internationalism – an internationalism for today – in the working classes throughout the world. This is, among other things, a consequence of financialisation. Thus debt audits might provide a fertile ground for renewed forms of international mobilisations and solidarity.

This new internationalism could start with three easy steps.

1) Debt audits in all countries

The crucial point is to demonstrate, as the French audit did, that debt is a political construction, that it doesn’t just happen to societies when they supposedly live above their means. This is what justifies calling it illegitimate, and may lead to cancellation procedures. Audits on private debts are also possible, as the Chilean artist Francisco Tapia has recently shown by auditing student loans in an imaginative way.

2) The disclosure of the identity of debt holders

A directory of creditors at national and international levels could be assembled. Not only would such a directory help fight tax evasion, it would also reveal that while the living conditions of the majority are worsening, a small group of individuals and financial institutions has consistently taken advantage of high levels of public indebtedness. Hence, it would reveal the political nature of debt.

3) The socialisation of the banking system

The state should cease to borrow on financial markets, instead financing itself through households and banks at reasonable and controllable interest rates. The banks themselves should be put under the supervision of citizens’ committees, hence rendering the audit on the debt permanent. In short, debt should be democratised. This, of course, is the harder part, where elements of socialism are introduced at the very core of the system. Yet, to counter the tyranny of debt on every aspect of our lives, there is no alternative.

 

Why Northerners don’t vote Tory

by in Commentary, Editor’s picks, Front Page and Politics
Mon October 21, 2013 9:32 a.m. BST
 

YouGov President Peter Kellner on why the Conservative party’s trouble with northerners may have less than to do with economic, ideological or social factors than one might expect

Karl Marx was wrong; or, at any rate, unfair. He complained that philosophers “only interpreted the world” when the point was to change it.  The trouble is, change is likely to work only when we understand what is wrong. The Conservatives badly want to change the voting habits in the north of England; but to do so, they must first answer the fundamental question: why don’t northerners vote Tory?

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Some do, of course. George Osborne (Tatton, Cheshire) and William Hague (Richmond, North Yorkshire) have safe seats. But these are rare. Just 31% of northern voters backed the Tories in 2010, 12 points less than in the rest of England.

It used not to be like that. When Winston Churchill led the Conservatives back into power in 1951, the gap was just three points (North 47%, rest of England 50%). Over the decades, the North has drifted away from the rest of the country.

The past 60 years have seen massive economic and social changes. Perhaps these explain the remorseless decline of northern Tories? The problem with this explanation is that the most obvious change should have had the opposite effect. The old coalmining, ship-building, steel-working areas have gone. The old Lowry landscapes of billowing factories have all but disappeared. One might have expected Labour’s hold over the industrial North to have weakened, and for the Conservatives to have benefited from the transition to newer, less unionised and more fragmented northern economy. And, indeed, Labour’s support is down, from 52% in 1951 to 38% in 2010. But it has not gone to the Tories. The net swing between 1951 and 2010 was 1% to Labour in the North – but 5% to the Tories in the rest of England.

There is one specific explanation for a part of the Conservatives’ long-term decline in the North. In some cities working-class loyalties used to divide along religious lines. Catholics voted Labour while Protestants voted Conservative. This was why Tories won five out of nine Liverpool seats in 1951. But by the Seventies, this effect had largely gone – yet the relative decline of the northern Tory vote continued. Today, there are no Conservative MPs in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford or Newcastle upon Tyne.

One possible explanation is that votes correlate with income. Northerners are worse off and therefore less likely to vote Conservative. However, this explanation does not wash. For a start, standards of living for typical families are actually much the same in the North and South. Overall, spending power is substantially higher in London and the South East; but these figures are heavily influenced by the minority of very higher earners in and around the capital.

If we define the South as the South East and South West regions (that is, excluding London; it is the definition of “South” used in the data for this article), then median pay rates in the North are just 10% lower than in the South. Then, when we take account of living costs (in particular rents and house prices, which are far higher in the South), then that 10% difference almost completely disappears as far as most working families are concerned.

What, though, about non-working families? Isn’t unemployment far higher in the North? Could this explain Tory unpopularity? Again, the answer is little, if at all. True, unemployment in the North (9%) is higher than in the South (6%). But unemployment in the West Midlands is higher still, at 10% – yet the Tories still managed to win 40% of the vote there three years ago.

Even if living standards are comparable, two other factors are worth examining: social class and the division between public and private sector jobs. Northerners are more likely than southerners to have manual jobs and to work in the public sector.

To examine these, I have aggregated YouGov polls from September this year. They provide data on more than 40,000 people across Britain, including more than 9,000 northerners and almost 13,000 southerners. This enables us to look in some detail at the demographic groups within both parts of Britain.

Social class first. As with pay rates, the differences between North and South are not massive. Using the normal definition – the job held by the head of household, 46% of northerners are working class compared with 41% of southerners. This is not enough to explain more than a fraction of the difference in voting patterns. Indeed, if we look at the Conservative share of the vote within each social class, the regional differences remain vast:

As those figures show, unskilled workers in the South are as likely to vote Conservative as managers and professionals in the North. It’s a similar story with public and private sector employment, with public sector workers in the South supporting the Tories in much the same proportions as private sector workers in the north.

To explore these, I have looked at a variety of recent YouGov surveys and also put some new questions to YouGov’s panel. The results allow us to test four possible sets of reasons why northerners don’t vote Tory.However we carve the figures, objective factors – whether economic, social or employment – account for only a small part of the gulf in Tory fortunes between South and North. It follows that most of the differences, therefore, are subjective, and relate to the way northerners and southerners think.

First, financial. Even if living standards are comparable, do northerners feel differently about their current circumstances and future prospects? The chart shows that there is no material difference on three out of four measures – how comfortable people feel today, their (low) optimism about the next 12 month and their (much higher) optimism about the long-term future.

1. Financial South % North %
Are very/fairly comfortable financially 37 35
Expect household finances to improve in the next 12 months 17 16
Workers worried that job is secure 38 44
Optimistic about “what life hold for you over the next 10-20 years” 59 60

In one respect attitudes do vary to a modest extent. Northerners in work are slightly more worried than southerners about losing their job. However, this seems to bear only a loose relationship with party loyalty. Once again, Midlands voters share similar economic numbers with the North (42% of Midlands workers feel insecure, versus 44% of northern workers) without sharing the same antipathy towards the Tories.

Second, ideology. From time to time YouGov asks people where they place themselves on a seven-point scale from “very left-wing” to “very right-wing”. Northerners and southerners show little difference, with only one in four describing themselves on “fairly” or “very” to one side or the other. At both ends of England, this minority divides evenly between left and right.

As for the role of government, the main, but again modest, difference is that northerners are more likely to have firm views one way or the other. More of them want the state to do and tax less – and more (though not many) want the state to do and tax more. Southerners are more content with the status quo.

2. Ideology South % North %

Regard themselves as very / fairly left-wing

Regard themselves as very / fairly right-wing

12

12

14

12

In long term, government should do less and tax less

In long term, government should do more and tax more

21

4

25

10

Private sector should play bigger role in delivering public services

Public sector should play smaller role in delivering public services

23

37

19

31

Think free market is best way to distribute goods and services 29 24
Would bring railways back into public ownership 61 64
Think Top tax rate should be 50% or more 49 55

In other respects, northerners are more likely to hold traditional left-of-centre views: more of them would like the private sector to play a smaller role in delivering public services; fewer of them agree that the free market is the best way to distribute goods and services and more think the top rate of tax should be raised to at least 50%. On the one explicitly socialist policy we tested, nationalising the railways, almost two-thirds of people at both ends of Britain back the idea. Overall, the small ideological gap explains a bit of the north-south party divide; but that is all.

Third, social attitudes. Here, the only difference to excite a statistician concerns welfare. Big majorities in all parts of Britain share the Conservative view that welfare benefits generally should be reduced; but southerners (79% of whom think this) outpace northerners (71%). On other issues – immigration, gay marriage, prison sentences, the EU and Syria – the differences are negligible. Whatever is driving northerners away from the Conservatives, it is not social attitudes. Like southerners, they want Parliament to get tough with immigrants, criminals and welfare recipients; and like southerners, they broadly support gay marriage and are divided on Europe.

3. Social attitudes South % North %
Want to stop all migration 48 50
Think welfare benefits generally should be reduced 79 71
Support gay marriage 53 56

More convicted criminals should be sent to prison

Fewer convicted criminals should be sent to prison

49

23

50

27

Would vote to stay in EU

Would vote to leave EU

39

43

40

41

Supported military action against Syria ahead of Commons vote

Opposed military action against Syria ahead of Commons vote

26

46

25

47

Ed Miliband is keen to present himself as a “One Nation” leader, stealing from the Tories the clothes designed by Benjamin Disraeli, who famously described England as “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy”. Even if Disraeli’s two nations – the rich and the poor – persist in England today, they have little geographical expression. Whether judged by circumstance, experience or attitude, the striking thing about northerners and southerners is not how different they are, but how alike.

Which simply sharpens the question – if the obvious reasons for Conservative unpopularity in the North do not really hold up, what does explain why they are so disliked? The time has come to test the issue directly – attitudes towards the two main parties.

4. The parties. The data need to be viewed with care. It is only to be expected that Conservative supporters will give “pro-Tory” and “anti-Labour” answers to attitudinal questions about the two parties – and vice versa for Labour supporters. Moreover, it’s hard to tell whether a pro-Tory response is a cause for, or a consequence of, supporting the party.

What we can do is look at how the differences between North and South vary. Where views are pretty similar, it is reasonable to suppose that these do NOT explain the gulf in party loyalties; rather, we are looking for the big differences in view.

4a. Conservatives South % North %
Big Differences
Conservatives care more about the rich and affluent than ordinary people 62 73
Cameron out of touch 32 42
Cameron doing well as PM 45 36
Think coalition is bad ‘for people like you’ 51 59
Cameron has no clear principles 39 47
Modest differences
Think state schools would improve if Conservatives win next election 28 21
Think economy would grow stronger if Conservatives win next election 40 34
Small differences
Think Conservatives have taken tough but necessary decisions 52 48
Think coalition is good ‘for people like you’ 24 22
Conservatives have changed for better since their time in opposition 35 34
Think immigration would fall if Conservatives win next election 28 28
4b. Labour South % North %
Big differences
Think economy would grow stronger if Labour wins next election 19 30
Miliband doing well as Labour leader 26 35
Small differences
Miliband out of his depth 48 46
Miliband too willing to give in to unions and left-wing 49 47
Labour has seriously lost touch with ordinary people 59 59

This process helps us to rule out a number of explanations. It’s not that northerners are significantly less likely to think that the coalition is “good for people like you”, that the Conservatives “have changed for the better since their time in opposition” or that they “have taken tough but necessary decisions” to turn round Britain’s economy. Nor do they have less faith in the Tories’ ability to control immigration – few people in any part of England think this.        

On the other side of the political ledger, northerners and southerners share similar views on whether Ed Miliband is too left-wing or out of his depth. A clear majority of southerners, 59%, think Labour “has seriously lost touch with ordinary people”; the proportion of northerners who think this is exactly the same.

There are modest differences when voters consider the practical consequences of Conservative rule. Southerners are slightly, but only slightly, more hopeful that a future Tory government would improve the economy or run state schools better.

Which brings us, finally, to the big differences. Northerners dislike David Cameron. They are significantly more likely to say he is out of touch and lacks clear principles, and much less likely to say he is doing well as Prime Minister. And despite the comparable living standards and levels of optimism, northerners are much more likely to think the coalition “is bad for people like you”. The widest gap of all, eleven points, concerns the proposition that the “Conservatives care more about the rich and affluent than ordinary people”. Big majorities in all parts of Britain think this, but the sentiment is especially intense in the North.

Not that the Tories have all the problems. Labour has parallel troubles in the South, where few voters think that Miliband is doing well or that the economy would grow stronger under Labour. The party has lost much of the respect, both for its leader and its competence, that it enjoyed under Tony Blair. Labour’s “southern discomfort” is alive and ill and living in towns and cities from Kent to Cornwall.

But the focus of this analysis concerns the North. The Tories’ problems did not start with Cameron, but neither have they lessened under his leadership. Rather, he reminds many northerners just why they dislike the Tory Party. It’s not because they are poorer, or more pessimistic, or further Left or more reliant on the state for their job: they aren’t – or, at any rate, not enough to explain their reluctance to vote Conservative. Nor is it because of what the coalition has actually done in the past three years – at most, this explains a fraction of the difference.

In the end, the Tories’ problem is not what they do; it’s what they are. Their trouble is their brand. They lost Scotland because they lost their reputation as a unionist party and came to be seen as an English party. They are losing the North because they are seen increasingly as a Southern party. This need not stop them winning a future election: there are enough constituencies in the Midlands and the South which, when added to the Tories’ isolated seats in the North, can give them a parliamentary majority. But few, even on the Conservative benches, would regard that as a wholly healthy prospect.

Leading Conservatives often admit they need more women and non-white faces on their benches. This analysis suggests that they also need many more people with regional accents. On its own, this won’t suddenly make the Tories popular on Merseyside or Tyneside; but as part of a long-term strategy to revive the Tory brand north of the Wash, it would be a start.

Conservative claims about benefits are not just spin, they’re making it up

Government ministers like Iain Duncan Smith and Grant Shapps are misrepresenting official statistics for political gain

Declan Gaffney and Jonathan Portes
guardian.co.uk, Monday 15 April 2013 15.32 BST

Conservative minister Grant Shapps has quoted a misleading statistic about the number of people on incapacity benefit dropping their claims as evidence of a broken welfare system. Photograph: Richard Sellers/Allstar/Sportsphoto Ltd
In the past three weeks, readers of mainstream UK newspapers have learned a number of things about the UK social security system and those who rely on it. They have learned that 878,000 claimants have left employment and support allowance (ESA) to avoid a tough new medical assessment; that thousands have rushed to make claims for disability living allowance (DLA) before a new, more rigorous, assessment is put in place; and that one in four of those set to be affected by the government’s benefit cap have moved into work in response to the policy. These stories have a number of things in common. Each is based on an official statistic. Each tells us about how claimants have responded to welfare policy changes. Each includes a statement from a member of the government. And each is demonstrably inaccurate.

When we say inaccurate, we are choosing our words carefully. Politicians are inevitably selective in the data they choose to publicise, picking the figures that best suit whatever story they want to tell. This can mean that stories that are technically accurate can nonetheless be potentially misleading. Within reasonable limits that is in itself neither improper nor unethical: indeed, it is virtually unavoidable. But here are some examples that are not just misleading: they assert that official government statistics say things they do not.

First, the claim that “more than a third [878,000] of people who were on incapacity benefit [who] dropped their claims rather than complete a medical assessment, according to government figures. A massive 878,300 chose not to be checked for their fitness to work [our italics].” For the Conservative party chairman, Grant Shapps, the figures “demonstrate how the welfare system was broken under Labour and why our reforms are so important”.

In fact, every month, of the roughly 43,000 people who leave ESA, about 20,000 have not yet undergone a work capability assessment (WCA); a number that over four years or so adds up to the headline 878,000. There is no mystery about this: there is an inevitable gap between applying for the benefit and undertaking the WCA. During that time, many people will see an improvement in their condition and/or will return to work (whether or not their condition improves). DWP research has shown that overwhelmingly these factors explain why people drop their claims before the WCA; it also showed that it was extremely rare for claimants not to attend a WCA. In stating, in effect, that official figures showed the opposite of this, the story was simply wrong.

Iain Duncan Smith’s assertion about a surge in DLA claims turns on the fact that DLA is being abolished for new claims and replaced with a new benefit, personal independence payment (PIP), for which most claimants will require a face-to-face assessment (for DLA, other forms of medical evidence could be used to support claims). He said: “We’ve seen a rise [in claims] in the run-up to PIP. And you know why? They know PIP has a health check. They want to get in early, get ahead of it. It’s a case of ‘get your claim in early’.”

Some very specific figures were cited: “In the north-east of England, where reforms to disability benefits are being introduced, there was an increase of 2,600 in claims over the last year, up from 1,700 the year before, the minister told the Daily Mail. In the north-west, there were 4,100 claims for the benefits over the past 12 months, more than double the 1,800 in the previous year, he said.”

But these figures, to be found on DWP’s website, in fact represent the change – successful new claims minus those leaving the benefit – in the total DLA caseload from August 2011 to August 2012, crucially including pensioners and children who are not affected by the change from DLA to PIP. They do not constitute even indicative evidence of a DLA “closing down sale”. So what happens if we look at new claims, or indeed the total caseload, for those (between 16 and 64) who will be actually affected by the change? In fact, both fell, in both regions, between those two dates. These falls – well within the normal quarterly variation – tell us little, except to show conclusively that Duncan Smith’s statements are supported by no evidence that he has offered whatsoever.

Finally, the coalition’s flagship “benefit cap”. On this occasion, not only did Duncan Smith misrepresent what his own department’s statistics meant, but he chose to directly contradict his own statisticians, claiming: “Already we’ve seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs. This clearly demonstrates that the cap is having the desired impact.”

But the official DWP analysis, from which the 8,000 figure is drawn, not only does not say this, it says the direct opposite: “The figures for those claimants moving into work cover all of those who were identified as potentially being affected by the benefit cap who entered work. It is not intended to show the additional numbers entering work as a direct result of the contact [their emphasis].”

As DWP analysts know only too well, people move off benefits into work all the time. Unless it is shown that these flows have increased for those affected, and by more for them than for other claimants – and no such analysis has yet been published, either by DWP or anybody else – we know nothing about whether the policy has had any impact (this claim is now being reviewed by the UK statistics authority).

None of this should be taken as comment on the merits of the policies in question. But these misrepresentations of official statistics cross a line between legitimate “spin”, where a government selects the data that best supports its case, and outright inaccuracy.

Public cynicism about official statistics is often misplaced – the UK, like most democracies, strictly limits the ability of governments to influence the production and dissemination of official data, often, no doubt, to the frustration of ministers. These restrictions on what government can do with official data are an unsung but essential element in modern democratic governance. When government seeks to get around these limitations by, in effect, simply making things up, this is not just an issue for geeks, wonks and pedants – it’s an issue for everyone.

• This article was amended on 19 April 2013. The original said 130,000 people leave employment and support allowance every month; that is in fact how many people leave ESA each quarter.