Dealing with disappointing data – a guide for aspiring autocrats

Even the most authoritarian of regimes feel the need to pretend that they enjoy popular support. Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-Un, for example, routinely claim to have won huge majorities in elections that were quite clearly rigged. In a similar way, UK politicians whose actions show scant respect for democracy, work hard to give the illusion that their decisions represent the will of the people.   

One skill they need to master is how to deal with disappointing data. What should a leader do if the evidence is likely to show that the course they are set on is deeply unpopular? The recent decision to impose a single unitary authority on the people of Somerset is a case study in how to manage such a situation.

The context is straightforward. There were two options put forward for local government reorganisation in Somerset – a single unitary authority for the whole of the county or two smaller councils, one covering the east and the other the western areas. All the available evidence is that local people were strongly against the single authority; but that was the one the minister seems to have predetermined. Here’s how he and his cronies set about trying to undermine democracy:

Step 1. Stop people asking the question. When the four district councils announced their intention to hold a local referendum on the issue, the communities secretary Robert Jenrick wrote an angry letter demanding that the councils reconsider. Full of bluster and implied threat, the letter questioned “the council’s powers to undertake the proposed exercise, its feasibility including any proposed use of the full electoral register and to whom it may be made available, and its value for money in the use of public funds”.

Loyal Conservative MPs weighed in. Happy to spend billions in the name of defending democracy overseas, they were outraged at the prospect of spending 70p per head to exercise it locally.

Step 2. Seek to discredit the result. When the district councils ignored Jenrick’s intimidation and offered local people a vote, the Tory machine swung into action to discredit the result. Local MPs seized on a mistake made by the polling contractor to demand that the exercise be set aside as corrupted. Somerset County Council argued that the results of the poll be declared null and void, as the mistake had “trashed their reputation”. Robert Jenrick said the district councils should apologise and that the poll had “serious failings”.

Step 3. Produce alternative figures. To minimise embarrassment, the government set up its own consultation process in a way that allowed it to carefully control the questions asked, the analysis of responses, and, crucially, the timing of publication (see step 4). The consultation allowed anyone to respond, rather than just Somerset electors, and for the results to be analysed in different categories. Although the result once again demonstrated that the clear majority of people opposed the secretary of state’s favoured outcome, the results were massaged in various ways to make it appear otherwise:

  • 1,314 responses submitted on paper were deemed to have been part of a campaign and were effectively discounted. Of these, 76 per cent favoured the two-council option.
  • 29 responses from council employees were simply noted with the words “responses are in line with council they work for or of which they are a member.”
  • Responses were given as percentages rather than absolute figures, implying a false equivalence. For example, the analysis states that 57 per cent of residents preferred the two-council proposal while 59 percent of businesses preferred the alternative – without making clear that responses were received from 5,167 residents but only 32 businesses.

Step 4. Choose a good day to bury bad news. Although the government had three months to analyse and present the results of its consultation, they were withheld until after the secretary of state had announced his decision. It is surely not accidental that he made his announcement on the last day before parliament started its summer recess, and just before the start of the Olympic Games. The results of the government consultation did not feature in his statement but were quietly placed in the House of Commons library the following day.

It is hard to improve on the reaction of Conservative MP for Bridgwater, Ian Liddell-Grainger, the day after the decision:

“Last night, in a clumsy and incomplete written announcement, the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, insulted the intelligence of 72,561 voters who supported Stronger Somerset in the recent referendum.

“In doing so he has laid bare his contempt for the democratic process and left a litter of question marks over the future of local government.

“This is not the end of the story. It may turn out to be the beginning of a bitter war which could easily end up in the law courts and may unravel the entire unitary plan for this county.”