10 October 2019

Debunking the spurious stats behind ‘austerity kills’

By Guy Dampier

When the Conservative party went to Manchester this year for their conference they were greeted with a banner on a nearby bridge proclaiming “130,000 killed under Tory rule – time to level the playing field”, complete with effigies of bodies hanging from nooses. The Manchester branch of Momentum quickly tweeted their support before deleting it after a public backlash.

Although widely condemned, the banner was seen as just another example of growing incivility in British politics. More interestingly, it is also the latest manifestation of a claim that the Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats from the Coalition years) are responsible for a six-figure death toll as a direct result of austerity.

It’s surprising how many left-wing politicians have backed this claim, from the likes of Chris Williamson to members of the Shadow Cabinet such as Diane Abbott and Clive Lewis. Even supposedly more intellectual figures like James Meadway, John McDonnell’s former economics advisor, have backed the claim and called on others to promote it.

The theory is now so widespread that it even appears on TV, with Ash Sarkar of pro-Corbyn Novara Media indignantly claiming on Question Time that austerity, “was not just a bloodless balancing of the books” but rather was “paid for with people’s lives, 120,000 people”.

But where does this claim come from? The answer, interestingly enough, is a November 2017 paper in the British Medical Journal. The peer-reviewed article found a link between restrictions on health and social care spending – austerity – and 120,000 additional deaths between 2010 and 2017.

The paper’s authors argued that there was a “mortality gap” between the number of people who had died under the Conservatives versus the number who would have died if death rates had continued to decline at the same rate as they had under New Labour.

They reached this by extrapolating from an estimated 45,000 “higher than expected” number of deaths between 2011 and 2014 and then projecting that to cover 2010 to 2017. This gave them a total of around 120,000 deaths, although even they had to admit they had only captured association and not discovered causation.

That didn’t matter for the notorious pro-Corbyn website The Skwawkbox, which wrote about the BMJ paper only a few hours after its publication with the headline “TORY #CUTS KILL 120,000 PEOPLE” above an image of Theresa May as the Grim Reaper.

The bold claims made by The Skwawkbox quickly percolated and became a talking point pro-Corbyn “outriders” on social media. Within a few months Momentum’s official account was citing the 120,000 figure as fact. By February this year the claim had even made it into a Labour party political broadcast.

The medical community responded to the BMJ paper with scepticism. An “expert reaction” by Professor Martin Roland, Emeritus Professor of Health Services Research at the University of Cambridge, and Dr Richard Fordham, a Senior Lecturer in Health Economics at the University of East Anglia, criticised it for overstating the certainty of the link between austerity and mortality and for being “highly speculative about the money needed to ‘save lives’ in future”. They also said that studies like the BMJ paper were “fraught with difficulties in proving causality” and added that “one should treat their conclusions with some caution”.

Others pointed out the many issues in the methodology. Eugene Milne, the Joint Editor of the Journal of Public Health and Director of Public Health for Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, noted the issues with causation and also pointed out that the paper used data standards from 1976 rather than the revised 2013 ones. This has a significant effect, as the older standards assume a much younger population, which would give a false impression of people dying more prematurely than they actually are.

He also pointed out that a similar rise in mortality to that between 2011 to 2014 also occurred between 2001 to 2003, a blip which the authors of the paper overlooked as it was part of a wider downward trend. That period predates austerity. More revealingly, Milne showed that using the same method, it could be shown that the creation of the NHS in 1948 negatively impacted the upward trend in life expectancy, as this trend plateaued shortly afterwards. This runs in stark contrast to the BMJ paper’s claim that less funding means earlier deaths and would surely be highly unwelcome to Labour activists.

Despite this, the IPPR, a think tank with close links to Labour, published a report in June this year with a similar claim: that if trends in mortality between 1990 and 2012 had continued there “could have been 130,000 deaths averted between 2012 and 2017”. However, the report’s authors did not reveal how they arrived at this figure.

When pressed the IPPR admitted that the apparent spike in mortality had started two years before austerity began, but claimed that public service cuts may have “contributed” and claimed that the “wider policy agenda will also have been a crucial factor”, including government policy on obesity. The Guardian was unworried about such nuance, headlining their write-up of the report “Austerity to blame for 130,000 ‘preventable’ UK deaths”. It was this larger figure which the protesters in Manchester used on their banner.

The use of supposedly impartial statistics to make political points is all too common. Only last month Tom Chivers had to point out major issues with the NGO Tell MAMA’s claim that Boris Johnson’s comments about the burqa had led to a 375% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. He found a small and opaque dataset with a compromised methodology based on a non-random, non-representative sample of the population. Yet this did not prevent a number of major news outlets, including The Independent and The Guardian, from repeating the claim. It is now frequently repeated online by those wishing to attack Johnson, including by Jeremy Corbyn, whose video on the subject has been seen over 1.6 million times.

The years of austerity have been tough for many people, without doubt. But these issues show that neither claim – of 120,000 or 130,000 deaths – stands up to scrutiny. Not only are they fundamentally flawed, they were quickly sensationalised by the media and turned into political weapons which have been used to make the extraordinary accusation that the Conservatives have been engaged in “economic murder”. At a time when many in British politics claim to want to return to civility, it would be a good start for those making these unsubstantiated claims to admit their fault and commit to a more fact-based debate.

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Guy Dampier is a senior consultant at Percival Group, a political consultancy