And so the prospect of a 50p tax rate resurfaces to remind us, for the squillionth time, that sentiments tend to trump statistics in politics. I mean, forget the report that HMRC published in 2012, which suggested – albeit with plenty of equivocation – that such a rate would be fiscally and economically harmful. Eds Miliband and Balls are onto a winner with this policy. A poll in today’s Mail on Sunday finds that six-in-ten adults support it.
Sentiment, of a sort, counted for more in another of this week’s political battles – that over the cost of living. Matthew Hancock can produce all the numbers he likes about prices and wages; Labour and a thousand frantic bloggers can publish all the graphs they want in return. Yet, as Charles Moore so rightly put it yesterday, “voters will only believe it when they feel it … They do not feel it yet.”
This isn’t a slight against voters. Politicians have mishandled and mis-sold statistics for so long that it’s little wonder that people choose to ignore them. Sometimes it’s flat-out deceits, as when Gordon Brown told a certain woman in Rochdale that Labour planned to “cut the debt by half over the next four years”. Sometimes it’s a separation from the facts on the ground, as when politicians boast of recovery whilst ignoring the areas of our country that are stuck in perma-recession. But either way, voters aren’t given much reason to trust anything beyond their own gut feelings.
But nor should this be taken as an argument that numbers don’t matter to the ebb and flow of politics. In fact, they matter more than ever. It’s clear, from this vantage point of 2014, that the rise of the internet journalism and the decline of our national economy merged to create a datapalooza. Almost as soon as George Osborne stands up to deliver a Budget, it’s been rebuffed and rebutted on the blogs. Journalists then swarm over the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ briefing the next day. All of this is enough to colour the coverage of the Chancellor’s work – which, insofar as voters care, is the one thing that can colour how it’s received more widely.
As it happens, Osborne understands this informational battleground quite well, I think: he established the Office for Budget Responsibility explicitly to remove politics from the Treasury’s numbers and make them more palatable. But I’m not sure that others in the Conservative operation – or, indeed, the other parties – do too. There’s still an overreliance on dodgy Lib Dem-style charts, which are skewed to the point of toppling over. Press releases are often a hash of links to old news reports and of Enron accountancy. This renders them unusable by any serious outlet, who will do their own, better work. Or, worse, it makes them ripe for tearing apart.
It surprises me that the parties haven’t really got their own IFS-style detachments: pumping out analysis that, alright, makes political points, but of a quality and timeliness that rivals the best data blogs. Campaigning doesn’t just involve poetry nowadays, it also involves numbers – but those numbers should be tailored for the news outlets who want ‘em, rather than being constantly forced on voters who don’t trust ‘em.