The most striking feature of the figures that Matthew Elliott presented on this site yesterday evening was the transformation between last year (2012-13) and the year (2011-2012 before that.

But before commenting on this aspect of Matthew’s findings, some points.  The Cabinet Office and other Conservative sources maintain that the imbalance between the Tories and Labour in public appointments is far less marked than his analysis suggests, for the following reasons:

  • The figures only take into account those people who declaring political activity, but this only a small proportion of the whole.  Ten years ago, they say, about 25 per cent of such appointments went to people declaring political activity. Today, this total is roughly five per cent.  In other words, only a small percentage of those gaining such appointments publicly identify with a political party: the decline of the parties is represented in the working of appointments.
  • However, people can of course hold political views, or have a political outlook, without being members of a party – and that, these Conservatives say, is what is happening in some key appointments, which is the Party’s gain as well as the public’s.
  • In any event, it’s important to set the percentage of those who declare political activity on behalf of a Party against those declaring political activity in the first place.  “Last year,” one source told me, “nine per cent of people declared a political affiliation and three per cent declared a Conservative one.  This year, five per cent declared the former and 1.5 per cent the latter.  This is not a big difference.”

Some of these points can be argued either way.  Matthew himself notes the fall in the number of people declaring political activity, but points out that the way in which government compiles the figures changes: he cites the inclusion for the first time of “a whole raft of judicial appointments”.

But I don’t think one should simply conclude that the whole business is just too difficult to draw any conclusions about at all.  And this returns me to the point I began with – the transformation between last year’s figures (2012-13) and those of the year (2011-2012) before that.

In 2011-2013, Labour took the lion’s shares of the political appointments, some 75 per cent or so, while the Tories were stuck at about 15 per cent.

But last year, Labour plummetted to the mid-thirties, and the Conservatives jumped into the same range: indeed, they actually overtook Labour.

Even this year’s shift back to Labour doesn’t return the figures to the status quo ante.  The Tories are over 30 per cent, and Labour under 50 per cent for only the second time since New Labour came to power.  The shift has been so significant as not to be explained away by juggling with those same figures.  What has been going on?  I think roughly as follows:

  • David Cameron came to office with little interest in controlling the commanding heights of British culture – or, rather, or the quangocracy, which helps to form that culture in the first place.  It was a big political error.
  • Matthew and others pointed this out repeatedly.  He was right out at the front of the charge.  He also named this site and Fraser Nelson: credit where it is due.
  • Whether for this reason or because Conservatives in Government found themselves frustrated by parts of the quangocracy, things began to change roughly mid-term.
  • Francis Maude has been engaged in a bare-knuckle fight to change the civil service.  He may not have been right on every detail, but he is correct about the big picture: it needs radical reform.
  • While he has been grappling with Sir Humphrey, he has also fought to help correct the bias in big appointments against people with a broad conservative worldview.
  • Those Conservative sources are right to say that numbers don’t tell you everything.  Looks at some important appointments made over the past few years.
  • David Prior has gone to the Care Quality Commission; Lord Green to the Natural History Museum.  William Shawcross to the Charities Commission; Sir Peter Bazalgette to the Arts Council.
  • These are important changes.   An unsung hero in the work to achieve a fairer balance has been Oliver Dowden in Downing Street.  The biggest outside force, I would argue, is Matthew himself.  Let’s hope that the argument he made on this site yesterday about more people on the candidates’ list being pushed to put themselves forward for public appointments gets traction.