As you’ll have noticed, the election campaign kicked off in earnest this week, and in amongst the usual insults, promises and posing in high-vis jackets, there has been a barrage of statistics.
Statistics are meant to be objective fact, a guiding light through the murky fog of election campaigns. But the truth is that facts can prove anything, and the contrasting statistics released by the major parties this week – loosely aligned to manifesto commitments and variously showing that the country is going backwards, forwards and absolutely nowhere – have conspired to prove nothing at all. A glance at the headlines over the past week would likely leave the average voter more confused about their options than informed.
Take economic growth. The coalition parties are keen to point to this as evidence of the success of their policies, and sure enough, the total size of the economy, as measured by GDP, is now bigger than it was before the downturn started, back in the sepia-tinged days of 2007. But take almost any other measure of economic performance and the story is less positive. Net National Disposable Income – the Office for National Statistics’ measure of economic wellbeing – remains nearly 2% below pre-recession levels, and explains why so few consumers feel like the recovery is benefitting them. Figures released just yesterday show that productivity – a measure of economic efficiency, calculated by working out the total economic output (GDP) produced by each hour of work – remains lower than in 2007, a trend only comparable historically to the absence of growth that followed WWII.
A similar picture can be found on employment. It is true that there are more people in work than ever before, and that unemployment is falling, but those headline figures create a picture of a dynamic, thriving labour market that many consumers – including of course the increasing numbers who are either underemployed, or on zero-hours contracts, or both – fail to recognise.
A broader look at the evidence suggests that recovery remains, at best, a matter of perspective.
The headline statistics appeal to politicians as they attempt to distil a complex issue into a simple message they hope will resonate with voters. But the public’s ability to access more information that is more detailed, more accurate, or simply less egregious has never been greater. This has only increased both the visibility and importance of people like Paul Johnson (director of the IFS, who has produced rapid analyses of election promises and warnings to reveal there is little truth behind them) and created a role for reality check analysis of every pledge or soundbite. If a party or a politician is being economical with the truth, or merely selective with their facts, we all know it very soon. This dialogue between statement, dispute and retraction/revision only serves to muddy the waters further, leading to less clarity rather than more.
This, and the gap between the political rhetoric and consumers’ actual experience perhaps explains the more general muddle of this election, with no party on course to win a majority, and a hung parliament the most likely outcome.
Despite this obfuscation, the modern voter has never had a better chance to interrogate the statements and promises for what they really are – however you vote, it has never been easier to do so in an informed way. Eventually, those we are voting for may realise this.