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Theresa May’s cabinet is the most southern government in modern political history

Before the Tories head to Manchester, 85 per cent of cabinet ministers may need to be told where it is.

Alec Douglas-Home’s 1963 cabinet was composed of 24 ministers. Among them were 11 old Etonians, six hereditary peers, two of Winston Churchill’s sons-in-law, and the editor of the Daily Telegraph. All of them were men. And yet, for all its starchy homogeneity, this cabinet was the last time the ministers of the British government equally represented the northern and southern halves of England.

For the latest edition of Spotlight – found in this week’s New Statesman – we looked at the composition of every senior government for the last century and found that Theresa May’s 2017 cabinet has a higher proportion of MPs with constituencies in the south of England than any other since at least 1900.

Of the 20 cabinet ministers in May’s government that have constituencies in England, just three have seats north of Birmingham; 85 per cent are elected in the south.

We defined “southern” cabinet ministers as those who are MPs with constituencies south of Birmingham (our definition of “northern” cabinet ministers therefore includes many constituencies in the Midlands – we are talking about the northern half of England rather than the less well-defined “the north”).

We drew this imaginary line because, according to recent ONS data, it very roughly divides the population of England into two groups of around 25 million people. Having looked at the composition of every cabinet since 1900 on these criteria, we found no government that was more skewed towards the lower half of the country than the current May ministry.

This disparity has grown over the past 50 years. Churchill’s cabinet was 54 per cent southern; Eden’s was 56 per cent southern. Edward Heath’s cabinet rose to 59 per cent. But it was with the formation of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 cabinet, in which 81 per cent of the English MPs were from the south, that the trend cemented itself. For the past 30 years, no Conservative cabinet (or the 2010 coalition) has drawn any less than 70 per cent of its ministers from below the Birmingham line.

Northern politicians to whom we’ve shown these figures say it confirms the sense that the country is governed by, and for, the south of England. Steve Rotheram, Liverpool’s metro mayor, told us: “Maybe there is a tendency to dismiss complaints from Northern politicians about southern bias, but my experience in Westminster convinced me that metro-centricity and southern bias are hardwired into government thinking and Whitehall control.

“The balance of the current government only exacerbates a gulf in comprehension and knowledge that continues to disadvantage the North and makes a mockery of their rhetoric on economic re-balancing.”

Partly, of course, this disparity simply illustrates where the safe seats lie, in a country in which voting has for many generations been largely a question of left or right. Labour governments tend to mirror the trend, with cabinets that are taken mostly from northern seats. But with Conservative governments in power for the majority (60 per cent) of the years since 1945, it is true that most of the big decisions made by senior governments in modern political history have been made by cabinet ministers who live in, and are elected by, constituencies in the south of England.

Rotheram says this is reflected in policy today. “The interests of the north can only be adequately represented around the cabinet table by ministers who understand, have experienced and ideally represent northern communities. An absolute commitment to fund Crossrail for the north would be a good start. For every £1 we get here in transport funding, the south gets £6. More northern voices would surely improve our chances of fair treatment. I think the current government sees the north as a far-flung province, or some kind of latter-day colonial territory.”

Devolution should help to regulate the north-south swing of central government. But while metro mayors such as Rotheram have new powers and control over budgets, decisions on the huge transport projects needed to link cities and create a “Northern Powerhouse” or a “Midlands Engine” are made by cabinet ministers such as Philip Hammond and Chris Grayling – both of whom ask the people of Surrey for their seats in parliament.

Theresa May travelled to Teesside last month to claim that “we have made good progress on this [the Northern Powerhouse] agenda”, and to reassure northern voters that a balanced economy remains a priority for the Conservatives. It remains to be seen how much will be invested in this promise by a cabinet that has so little electoral interest in fulfilling it.

Read an in-depth interview with Steve Rotheram here

Will Dunn is the New Statesman's Special Projects Editor. 

Photo: Getty
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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.