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Voters have good reason not to believe politicians and their statistics

By Mark Wallace 
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Truth"Pity the rational politician", laments the header on Peter Kellner's Telegraph article today. Leaving aside the question of how many rational politicians there are, why should we pity them?

Do so, Kellner tells us, because they're lumbered with such a stubborn electorate. Voters just won't believe the facts. The numbers and the academic analysis tell us that immigration is falling, educational standards are rising and crime is down, but the people don't buy it. That, he argues, leaves us prey to a "knee-jerk", "populist agenda".

It's undeniable that the people do not trust the political class. Saying that voters think politicians are prone to lying is about as insightful as revealing that Wayne Rooney doesn't keep a copy of Wittgenstein's collected works in his kit bag.

Rather than simply demanding, as Brecht suggested, that we "dissolve the people and elect another" more suited to politicians' standards, we should ask two questions.

1) Are voters wrong not to trust politicians, official statistics or campaigning academics?

The answer to the first question is troublingly clear. Voters have a very good reason not to believe a single word of the facts they are given by ministers, statistical bodies and experts: they have regularly turned out to be lies in the past. Where the numbers haven't been deliberately untrue, the analysis portrayed as the only possible conclusion arising from them has often turned out to be mistaken.

Of the three examples Kellner gives, immigration leaps out.

If there was an Oscars ceremony for political lying (the Mandies?), New Labour's stars would be the ones posing smugly with armfuls of awards at the after-party. But among a firmament of brazen untruths, that told about Eastern European immigration must be the most outrageous.

With straight faces, ministers repeatedly told the nation that the UK would receive only 13,000 migrants from the new accession countries. The reality was 1,373% higher than the Government's claim.

And we wonder why people don't believe what they're told?

The same goes for all sorts of issues. The mis-use of the hockey stick graph to insist on costly green taxes springs to mind. The startling admission that the safe quantity of alcohol units used to drive so much nannying policy was "plucked out of the air" by the Royal College of Physicians in 1987 on the basis of "no evidence". The list goes on.

That is not to say that there is no truth in politics. There are many honestly made cases, and it must be frustrating for those making them that they are blunted by the lies told by others.

Nor is this a new problem. Three centuries ago, Jonathan Swift was railing against The Art of Political Lying. It is understandable that the people have learned to be wary.

2) Does that distrust harm our politics?

Is it really a bad thing?

The Westminster narrative would say yes. If the people are so stubborn and short-sighted as to reject solid, expert evidence then it becomes impossible for politicians to pursue the right policies. The nation would suffer as a result of, as Kelner put it, knee-jerk populism.

But that view is a departure from reality. The fact is that the much sneered-at common sense of the electorate often proves more accurate than the supposed insight of experts and advisory panels.

In 2000, we were told that "within a few years" British children would only rarely see snow - "balls" thought the public, and they were right. That they carried on driving and heating their homes despite the warnings is an undeniably good thing - that politicians chose to tax them heavily for doing so is a painful error.

As Peter Hoskin has pointed out previously, no less a matter than the public finances are beset by "a hash of revisions, counter-revisions, overshoots and undershoots". And yet despite the fact the official statisticians struggle to accurately measure what has already happened in the economy, politicians continue to announce their forecasts as gospel truth.

In fact, scepticism of expert authority is a healthy thing.

While official statistics and expert opinion can often be mistaken, they are just as often used by unscrupulous politicians to give artificially high authority to bad policy. The obsessive hunt for political "consensus" assumes that agreeing with everyone is better than being correct. As the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban said, "a consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually."

The people reject the official numbers due to bitter experience - refusing to accept them on face value has so often turned out to be the right decision that it has become a habit. Peter Kellner and others may not like that, but it can only be changed if politicians change their behaviour and go through the long process of winning trust.

In fact, they might make better policy if they followed the experts less. The high point in this absurd trend for citing authorities came in 1981, when Margaret Thatcher ignored the now-infamous 364 economists ranged against her plans. They were experts, and there were hundreds of them - but they were wrong. Had she buckled to their demands, history would be very different. 

Don't pity the rational politician - applaud the sceptical electorate. They are often absolutely right.


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