Michael Gove revealed to be using PR-commissioned puff-polls as "evidence"

Eight out of ten cats prefer Michael Gove to Whiskas.

The Department of Education is notoriously bad at answering freedom of information requests, even being put under special monitoring by the information commissioner's office in December last year because of past inadequacies in answering queries. So it's doubly impressive that Janet Downs, a retired teacher and campaigner who is part of the Local Schools Network, not only managed to get an answer from them, but also extract an excruciating confession about what passes for "evidence" in Michael Gove's department.

Querying a claim made in article in the Mail on Sunday titled "I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools: Education Secretary berates 'the new enemies of promise' for opposing his plans", Downs asked for the background to Gove's claim that:

Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.

The department revealed that the main claim sources from a survey "commissioned and conducted by UKTV Gold", and that the other surveys referred to include:

That last survey was linked, by the Department of Education, to an article in the Telegraph, rather than the initial survey.

To be clear, five of the six "surveys" cited by the Department of Education in backing up a claim by a cabinet minister were PR-commissioned puff-polls. They were commissioned, not to find out information in a trustworthy and repeatable manner, but to ensure that stories about UKTV Gold, Premier Inn, the Sea Cadets , Bomber Command Memorial and "teacher-set exam revision service" Education Quizzes found their way into UK papers. Some of them may additionally be respectable polling – the Lord Ashcroft poll around Bomber Memorial Command uses a nationally representative sample, non-leading questions, and face-to-face interviews, for instance – but it's the sort of thing which normally rings alarm bells.

The last cited survey isn't a survey. It's a pamphlet on "Freedom, Aspiration and the New Curriculum" from think-tank Politeia. While it agrees with Gove's conclusion, it is hardly a primary source (an ironic distinction to have to make in a discussion about history teaching).

If this the sort of information which is revealed when the Department of Education responds to freedom of information requests, it's becoming clearer why they so rarely do it.

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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