Over at the Spectator, Alex Massie analyses an Ipsos-Mori poll on some of the beliefs the British people hold about our country and the way the Government operates.
To pick just one statistic:
Then there’s this doozy: 29% of respondents think the government spends more on unemployment benefits – the Job Seekers’ Allowance – than on pensions. In fact, pensions cost 15 times as much (rightly so!).
Apparently the British public is similarly misinformed about the propoertion of Muslims in the country, the number of immigrants, the budget of the Department for International Development, the rate of teenaged pregancies, and the crime rate.
Massie shies away from calling the British people stupid, though the headline to his post ‘Abandon All Hope’ suggests this is what he thinks. And clearly this poll shows that we are, indeed, a highly ignorant bunch.
But I think it would be wrong for we the public to take the blame. To my mind, this poll shows that we are being failed by our media. Their primary purpose is surely to keep us informed about what is going on in our democracy, and clearly they are not doing that job effectively. That’s not something that Alex Massie cares to consider in his article.
I enjoyed these tweets from Laurie Penny, tweeting as @BBCExtraGuest during Question Tim tonight.
The tabloids regularly publish their deceptive anecdata, building over time the impression of welfare abuse.
The result is that the public’s understanding of welfare is warped beyond what is democratically healthy:
The British public believe benefit fraud is a big problem. A recent poll by the TUC showed people believe 27% of the welfare budget is fraudulently claimed.
The reality is very different. Last year, 0.7% of total benefit expenditure was overpaid due to fraud, according to the DWP’s official estimates.
I think that simple, tweetable statistics that put the extent of the welfare ‘problem’ into perspective are the essential weapon the Left needs in its quest to protect the welfare state. Every labour activist needs to be prepped to reel off the facts when they knock on doors and make calls. Every left-leaner should have these figures on the tip of their tongue, ready to rebut the casual myths that their friends, family and colleagues might casually drop into the conversation. (Of course the professional politicians can already do this, but it is rare that Liam Byrne MP is available to stand in the petrol station forecourt, personally explaining to those filling up their tanks that the big stacks of Mail and Express over there are peddling propaganda).
What might the statistics be? In addition to the figures above about welfare fraud vs tax evasion, we need to know the figures for JSA and disability benefits as a proportion of the total welfare bill. Comparisons should be made with defence spending and corporate tax breaks.
One might say that the reason that the myths and misinformation persists is that human interest stories work better than figures. But I think that is a received wisdom that may not be quite true. Figures like those above are easy to remember and repeat.
Moreover, it is not a given that the human interest angle will always be persuasive. ‘Benefit Scroungers’ stories work because You The Taxpayer are the victim of the piece. On the other side of the debate, when we hear the horror stories of welfare cuts or denial, someone else is the victim. There is a world of difference between these different types of stories, and it gives those seeking to divide and obfuscate the upper hand. Perhaps succinct figures, soundbite stats, could give us an edge?