Wednesday 11 November 2009

Cameron fails poverty fact-check

Stuart White, Next Left blogger and director of the Public Policy Unit at Oxford University, had previously offered readers a fair and factual critique of the successes and failures of Labour's record of poverty and inequality, scrutinising David Cameron's claims that the Conservatives should be considered the party of the poor.

Now Channel 4 news have also done their own detailed fact-check on David Cameron's claim about Labour's record on poverty and inequality that

"Poverty and inequality have got worse, despite Labour's massive expansion of the state."

On a scale of 0-5, where 5 means "absolutely no basis in fact", Cameron's speech scores a 4 on poverty, at the top end of the scale which suggests "misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language".

That is because he claims that poverty has risen under Labour when any reasonable account would report that poverty has fallen.

Fact check find that his inequality claim stands up better - scoring him at 2 out of 5.

That may seem fair given that the Gini coefficient measure of inequality has risen slightly, as Labour's efforts to 'run up the down escalator' slowed down sharp rises in inequality but did not reverse them.

However, the rise in the Gini is caused by runaway inequality in the top 1% and particularly the top 0.2% - while the 90:10 gap between those 10% from the top and 10% from the bottom has narrowed under Labour.

And David Cameron's speech offered a (somewhat Blairite) critique in arguing that this is not the inequality that matters.

That doesn't mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom. Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

Labour can stake a reasonable claim to have reduced inequality between the bottom and the middle, which is the inequality which Cameron thinks matters.

In challenging that, David Cameron does also rely on some statistics about severe poverty which Channel 4 note "are not thought to be reliable another to get the quality stamp of being published as official statistics" Stuart has mentioned the IFS' health warning about those statistics. (Frank Field is a Labour voice who admires Cameron's approach but who also warns that "his choice of figures is in a few instances dodgy. The data on those at the very, very bottom of the income scale is not that reliable").

David Cameron's political opponents should welcome his commitment to engaging with issues of poverty and inequality, though the fact checks demonstrate that his analysis is not based on a fair or accurate understanding of the recent record.

But it was good too that his latest speech sought to either correct or at least nuance the very stark Reaganite 'government is the problem' core message of his party conference speech, even if it remains very difficult to work out what the vague rhetorical commitment to a 'big society' might amount to.

Cameron has also spoken - on issues like the minimum wage and Labour's commitment to redistribution - of giving credit where it is due.

His speech clearly failed that test. But let's hope the Conservatives may remain on a learning curve over these issues.

1 comment:

Stuart White said...

Thanks for additional info, Sunder. Bearing in mind also the analysis in today's Grauniad, and other posts like Anthony Painter's at LabourList, it looks as if the facts are now being separated from the Cameroonian factoids and myths.

Also very interesting to see Labour adopt a new mutualist agenda in public services - a philosophy of state and society working together in constructive partnership to counter the Conservative story of 'state vs society'?