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The power of a statistic to change perceptions
12/12/2012 16:00:00


Statistics are integral to political debate. Politicians use them all time and sometimes abuse them.

One of my favourite examples was Labour's use of 'average' Council Tax bills in the 1990s: although the average Labour council charged higher bills in each and every Council Tax band, Labour figured out that the average bill in their areas was lower - nothing to do with councils' spending decisions, purely because property prices were lower in Labour areas and hence they had a higher proportion of the properties in the lower Council Tax bands - and that they could use this to create a completely misleading impression.

Most of these statistics make no impression. But sometimes you hear a statistic that transforms how you see an issue. I had one such experience this morning.

I was reading Conservative Home and noticed an article by my former boss, Greg Clark with the headline:

"The UK economy, excluding the financial and North Sea sectors, has grown by over 4½ per cent in real terms since the beginning of 2010".

"So what?" you might say. "The economy has barely grown since 2010, what does it matter how particular sectors are doing?"

Well politically it matters a great deal. The key issue in British politics at the moment is how to deal with the deficit. Labour's argument is that the Coalition has cut the deficit in half, pushing the economy into a double dip recession. If that were true, you would expect all sectors of the economy to be affected.

If instead most of the economy has been growing by about 2 per cent a year but two sectors - financial services and North Sea oil and gas - have been experiencing particular problems, that tells a very different story.

There's still no room for complacency - problems with financial services in particular spill over into the rest of the economy because it means other businesses find it hard to obtain credit - but this is a statistic that deserves wider circulation.

Comment on this blog


Readers' Comments

On 06/01/2013 12:33:00 Diana wrote:
Dear Mr Barwell

Having seen one of your posts on twitter and being of a curious nature, I thought I would click on the link to your website. Having read the above I felt compelled to write a response. I totally agree that statistics can change perceptions. However I couldn't help thinking how hypocritical the above piece of writing is, considering that all 3 major parties are guilty of manipulating statistics to influence public opinion. In fact where statistics with regards to welfare are concerned they haven't just been manipulated but portrayed in such a way that it comes close to being dishonest. It's not only dividing people, but more worryingly has incited hate against some of the most vulnerable people.

Disability hate crime is on the increase and one only has to look at the language used by politicians and the media to see why. I'm actually somewhat shocked that someone who successfully spearheaded the Mental Health Discrimination Bill has written about labour using statistics, when Ian Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling have manipulated statistics to such a degree that they have convinced a large part of society into believing that many disabled are malingerers and scroungers. At the end of the day people with mental health problems are already facing enough discrimination, whether it's constant reassessments by Atos healthcare professionals, who often have very little awareness/knowledge of mental health conditions, work program providers with similar attitudes or employers who still shy away from employing someone with a history of mental health issues. Having to battle on a daily basis trying to get help and support when people are already struggling just to get through the day is hard enough, without having to hear or read constant slurs when they turn on the T.V. or read the papers. Maybe your next blog could be about that? It certainly would be refreshing to see someone standing up and doing what the coalition promised people, which is to help and protect vulnerable people.

Kind regards

Diana Foster




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Gavin Barwell, 133 Wickham Road, CR0 8TE, Tel  020 8663 8741      © Gavin Barwell  2019       Promoted by Ian Parker on behalf of Gavin Barwell, both at 36 Brighton Road, Purley, CR8 2LG