There still aren't 120,000 "troubled families"

A zombie statistic refuses to die, even as the DCLG helps 3,000 real families.

The government is very happy that its "troubled families" intervention programme is having results, with the BBC reporting that:

Early intervention by a dedicated case worker has reduced crime among those people involved by 45%… Anti-social behaviour has gone down by 59%.

Those are good results, even if the vast majority of the report is case studies of a few of the families involved. As for the actual results, the vast majority of quantitative data presented is percentage changes. This is clearly important; but it's also crucial to know how many troubled families actually exist, and how many can be helped. After all, a programme which is targeted at just a handful of families isn't particularly useful in the grand scheme of things.

This is an area the government, and the BBC, fall down on severely. The Department for Communities and Local Government's report claims, three times, that there are 120,000 families.

This is incredibly unlikely to be true. We've explained before, in detail, why this is the case, but the short version is that the DCLG claimed there were 120,000 troubled families defined with one set of criteria, but then changed the definition and continued claiming 120,000 families existed.

Unless two markedly different groups of people both add up to 120,000, it seems likely that this number was just pulled out of thin air (none of the research which the DCLG has made available explains where it came from). And yet today's report, and the BBC write-up, repeats it.

The BBC also claims that 40,000 families are expected to be helped this year, which would be a twelve-fold increase from the 3,324 families who were actually helped in 2011-2012 (and, of course, would still be just a third of the claimed eligibility). That figure of 3,324 is not mentioned anywhere in the BBC's report, nor the DCLG's press-release.

The trouble families programme does seem to be a great help to those families successfully referred to it, as Casey's report makes clear. But it is helping far, far fewer families than media reports make out; and part of that may be because no-one seems to actually know how many families are even eligible.

Broken window. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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