Labour website spin 'like Orwell's 1984'

Professors accuse Labour of creating a 'social statistical utopia'

David Walker
Tuesday October 8, 2002
The Guardian

The Labour party has "systematically manipulated" data on its website to show improvements in health, schooling and other services, according to an unpublished study.

Starting in the run-up to last year's election and continuing since, Labour has guided the public to misleading statistics for crime and unemployment as well as spending on schools and hospitals.

Figures have been "mangled" to give a better impression of Labour's performance at the local level.

In a research paper circulating among academics, after being presented at a recent Political Studies Association conference, four distinguished geographers take apart the website's figures for local areas. Led by professors Danny Dorling of Leeds University and Ron Johnston of Bristol University, the team argue that Labour has consistently adjusted and manipulated data without acknowledging it.

"Rather than appearing to be a necessary series of occasional white lies, it is beginning to look as if the provision of this distorted picture is a longer term party strategy," the paper says.

Labour's webmasters are compared to Winston Smith, the character in George Orwell's novel 1984, who spent his time in the Ministry of Plenty rewriting history.

No individual figure is untrue "in the strict sense of the word. It is just that the way in which the statistics have been put together - mixing and matching years and areas to present the best possible picture of improvement - is disingenuous overall."

By typing in a postcode, visitors to Labour's site can access apparently detailed information about where they live. But some of the figures presented refer to the UK or England as a whole, some to entire regions, some to council areas, but very few to the specific area let alone the street where people live.

Website visitors are told of increases in nurses, without being told the figures relate to NHS regions rather than individual hospitals. Literacy and numeracy improvements are stated, without the public being told they refer to entire local education authority areas - which can contain up to 20 parliamentary constituencies. Crime figures on the website are not specific to postcodes but to police force areas, some very large, or even to England and Wales as a whole.

"According to the Labour party's figures, Britain is fast approaching some kind of social statistical utopia." The academics suggest this picture would look a lot darker if the website also included data on the impact of taxation, teacher and nurse vacancies, delayed trains and numbers of asylum seekers settled in each area.

The paper says visitors to the party website get "sanitised" data that is bound to be "good news".

Since the election the party website has been expanded and, "in no case has there been any attempt to correct the misleading statistics first placed on the website over a year ago".

The team note that as Labour's membership falls and constituency parties shrink, the importance of the "virtual party" is growing. Its national website becomes more and more important as a source of local data. They argue that the danger with misleading data on the Labour website is that figures recycled by candidates and party agents get released to local newspapers and feed into local political debate as facts.

Eddie Morgan, party assistant general secretary, said the academics were criticising an apple for being a pear - "Labour, like other parties, wants to present the best possible picture of improvement. All statistics on the site come from publicly available sources, but I must emphasise we are not offering a disinterested assessment of how the government is doing. The information is designed to present the achievements of the government in a positive light."

Figuratively speaking

We typed in the postcode for the constituency office of Alan Milburn, the health secretary and MP for Darlington: DL1 5JH. These were the results:

Crime: Durham police force area and national data used for police numbers and crime. Durham includes half a dozen other constituencies.

Education: North-east regional figures for teacher numbers.

Health: National spending figures and numbers of doctors and nurses.

Employment: Regional figures for minimum wage, travel to work area for unemployment.

Missing figures: Crime breakdown by offence, children in poverty, tax bill, asylum seekers, teacher vacancies.