22 January 2023

Weekly Briefing: Stat attack


For fans of cock-eyed statistics, British politics offers a smorgasbord of material – and this week was no exception.

Take the big row about the second round of Levelling Up funding. Isn’t it disgraceful that the leafy south-east of England is getting more money than needier parts of the country? Well, you could conclude that by only looking at headline amounts, but if you look at funding per head a rather different picture emerges. The south-east may still be getting more than Yorkshire, admittedly, but far less than other regions.

Public sector pay is another area where competing claims abound. As the row over studying maths to 18 made clear, a lot of people find numbers a bit worrisome, if not downright scary. Perhaps that’s why some, prominent MPs included, prefer to keep their appeals entirely stat-free. So, we get maddeningly vague appeals for a ‘fully funded NHS, or for nurses/firefighters/teachers to receive ‘fair’ pay, which always happens to be whatever union leaders are demanding.

It’s a debate (or, quite often, slanging match) made trickier by the fact that both sides to cherry-pick to suit their argument. So ministers might focus on, say, high train driver salaries, while ignoring far lower paid workers elsewhere in the railways. On the other hand, unions are wont to produce dramatic figures on real terms pay reductions that fall apart under closer scrutiny.

This week, for instance, the National Education Union (NEU) said that teachers’ pay had fallen 24% since 2010. That sounds very bad indeed. Except, as my colleague (and former maths teacher) Mark Lehain explained, that calculation relies on using RPI inflation and focusing on the highest paid staff. Using CPIH inflation and a weighted average of salaries gets you to 11% – still not great, but considerably below the NEU’s figure.

And that’s before we get to the absolutely crucial point that on average public sector workers, teachers included, get much higher pensions contributions than their private sector counterparts.

What’s more, as Mark notes in his piece, focusing on pay alone can also obscure important issues to do with working conditions that are driving many teachers out of the profession.

Those arguments are relatively trifling, however, compared to some of the outlandish claims made about overall public spending. The Truss/Kwarteng ‘mini budget’ was clearly disastrous, but the idea that it ‘cost’ the government £30bn that needed to be clawed back was a statistical horlicks (and thoroughly debunked by Julian Jessop here). Remarkably, an even more startling number is now circulating, based entirely on this Daily Express article, which reaches a figure of £74bn by dramatically over-interpreting some quite technical observations about how the Government finances its debt.

Just as concerning as dodgy stats are how wildly public perceptions can differ from reality. Take this poll from the thinktank More In Common, in which respondents estimated that MPs’ pay takes up 8% of total public spending – about 800 times the real proportion. That kind of misunderstanding is abetted by people tweeting endlessly about ‘MPs’ expenses’ as if they are a huge gravy train, rather than the basics of a politician paying their office staff.

And while we’re on the subject of illusory numbers, beware politicians taking credit for a sudden change in some important statistic like, say, inflation. We might well see price rises calming down later in the year, but whether it has anything to do with Jeremy Hunt and his coffee cups is another matter altogether…

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.