It’s election day today (Thursday) so I’ve tried to keep politics out of this issue but letters page stalwart Sam Corcoran (Labour) wrote in complaining that I didn’t fact-check some of the claims (made in the hustings and letters pages etc) in last week’s issue.
He’s done his own fact checking — obviously fairly biased towards his own party — so I thought I’d use his letter as the basis for a final Election Watch.
You would be foolish to take any headline claims seriously. Both the main parties are manipulating the numbers in a way I’ve come to mentally label “gas boiler lottery”.
My gas boiler broke this year and cost me £2,500. If I was a politician I could claim I was “£2,500 worse off” under the Tories without saying exactly why. Conversely, I could have won £5,000 on the Lottery and claim I was £5,000 better off.
This is a crude comparison but politicians use figures crudely, taking the worse figure possible for their opponents’ budgets and then dividing it by the smallest number they can morally use, to get the most damaging figure.
Both, for example, often use tax figures based on “working households” paying tax — but only working households. Pensioners are excluded, as are nonworking households, yet they all pay tax too. By just using “working households” (probably “hard working households”) a politician can make tax plans look much more damaging.
Anyway, back to Sam Corcoran’s letter.
He wrote: “I was sorry not to see your Election Watch fact check in last week’s papers as some of the lies being peddled need rebuttal.” Lies? Strong words indeed.
• “Labour ran up the biggest debts in our history”. Sam said this was not true because the UK’s net debt now was higher than when Labour left office.
This is true, in a court-of-law-leading-question sort of way.
From 2002–2007, Labour increased national debt, which it spent on health and education. Under Tony Blair, the country had four years of budget surplus, but Labour increased the debt.
The Tories (and the next government) are stuck with this and older accumulated debt because the average growth of public spending is about 3%, and much of this is automatic, such as rising pensions.
Both parties are stuck with managing the deficit, and both are reluctant to go into detail.
The Tories will continue to make the cuts we all know and love; Labour seem to be committed to borrow an extra £25-£30bn for capital spending, which is what they did last time they were in, spending it on schools and health.
If you’re a Tory tutting at Labour borrowing while in budget surplus, instead of paying off debt, consider that quantative easing seems to have just made the very wealthy even wealthier and the top end art market has boomed. In four years, the global turnover in sale rooms almost doubled since the slowdown of 2009/2010. The New York Times said that US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was “a major patron” of the art market.
• “The Conservatives never promised to eliminate the deficit in this Parliament”. George Osborne said in his budget speech in June 2010: “That deficit will then be eliminated to plus 0.3% in 2014-15 and plus 0.8% in 2015-16. In other words, it will be in surplus”.
Sam seems to be wrong here. George Osborne promised to eliminate the STRUCTURAL deficit by 2015-16, not the deficit. Tedious semantics I know, but this is how politicians work.
The Tories CAN claim not to have promised to reduce the deficit. They did promise to reduce the structural deficit, which they failed to do by as much as they promised. Because of this, they’ve tried to say they’ve reduced spending as a percentage GDP but this is also untrue.
• “The Conservatives have fixed the economy”. Sam said this was not true and he appears to have a point. Some facts:
(i) Living standards up to 2013 rose more slowly than expected but after 2013 speeded up more than expected.
(ii) Consumer confidence has been low for 12 years (ie back into Labour) and is now improving. The official rating for confidence fell into negative figures during the early years of the coalition but has picked up. At the peak of New Labour, confidence was rated +10, during the early years of the coalition it fell to -30 and is now +4.
(iii) The gross domestic product in the UK expanded 0.30% in the first quarter of 2015 over the previous quarter.
As a comparison, the growth rate averaged 0.61% from 1955 until 2015. The all-time high was 5% in the first quarter of 1973, the record low -2.70% in the first quarter of 1974.
Sam wrote: “The Conservatives inherited a growing economy, but destroyed that growth by making sudden ideological cuts in 2010.” That’s also sort of true. Growth was about 0.3% in 2008 but crashed around 2009 (Labour) to -2.2%. By 2010 it had jumped back to over 0.4% and was rising but slowed, peaking at a full 1% mid-way through 2010 before dropping back. Then it kind of goes up and down around the 0% mark.
The economy is probably not doing as badly as pessimists feared but neither is it fixed. It all depends whether you agree that:
• “Labour caused the financial crash”. Sam said this was not true and was denied by Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England.
In fact Mr King — whose bank must also carry some of the blame so he’s got a dog in the fight — said there was “a shared intellectual responsibility” across all the political parties, bankers’ speak for “everyone is to blame”.
Politicians of all hues failed to control the banking sector, probably because it was too complex, bankers were big donors, and the biggest fools sound the most confident.
While the banking collapse fell on Labour’s watch — and Labour raised the debt despite running a budget surplus — both main parties allowed the banks to be less well regulated, from Maggie T to Gordon B.
• Tax. If you’re still reading, you’re doing well because I’m running out of steam, which of course is what politicians hope. Repeat enough dodgy figures enough times and people won’t have the energy to check them all.
Sam made a point about tax: this is the point where both parties get hard to follow.
Labour claim working people will be £1,600 worse off under the Tories, but this doesn’t include pensioners, tax and benefits changes and is based on year-old figures. The Tories ditto. You can’t really believe anything you read about tax. Both parties are going to cut services and raise taxes; Labour will borrow more to invest in public services.
As a final Election Watch warning: readers of the dreadful Daily Express need to be aware that its owner Richard Desmond has donated £1m to UKIP. This obviously affects its reporting.
I say “dreadful”: a Washington Post article branded the Express “evil” for a headline that read “80% want to quit the EU”. The Post noted: “The headline is beyond misleading; it is an outright lie in any meaningful sense of the word.” It added: “It seems that the Express isn’t a real newspaper . . . (it’s) in the same category as those Nigerian spammers. The difference is, perhaps, that from the outside it looks like a legitimate (if low-brow) newspaper, so it’s polluting the public discourse.”
Another media-related issue is the non dom tax debate. The most famous non dom in the media is the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere. That newspaper had a go at Ed Miliband’s father; the abolition of non dom tax loophole would raise very little in actual revenue but annoys the Daily Mail very much, as well as forcing the Tories to take a stance.
Readers of either newspaper should thus treat any stories with even more suspicion than usual.
Talking of UKIP: I‘ve not fact-checked Mr Farage’s claims as most are very misleading but tedious to check, as with houses being built for immigrants, which I wrote about the other week.
For example: his claim that 60% of the 7,000 people treated for HIV at £25,000 a year were “health tourists” is not true, not least because NHS records do not make it possible to make the claim he did.
For a start, 6,000 people are year are treated, not 7,000.
What is known is that 46% were from the UK and 54% are not (the possible source of
Mr Farage’s “60%”).
But some of the 54% were from countries where HIV treatment is free anyway (so not “health tourists”), or from countries with whom the NHS has a reciprocal agreement — ie the money can be claimed back, or offset against the cost of Brits treated abroad.
Some of the 54% would have a right to use the NHS — like Mr Farage’s own German-born wife.
Around 30% of those were from poor countries, 25% from Africa, but some of these would have UK citizenship.