Monday, 15 February 2010

More broken society bullshit

The Economist has comprehensively debunked the "broken society" narrative as, factually speaking, "simply untrue".

Chris Grayling has been castigated for using dodgy statistics to back up the false claim that violent crime has increased.

But the latest Tory balls-up in trying to stand up the "broken society" scaremongering may be the most embarassing yet.

The Tories claim 54% of girls under 18 in deprived areas get pregnant.

In the real world, that would be 5.4%

5.4%? 54%? To complain is to miss the point too. The main point is that society is broken, I tell you, broken. How could it be doubted? Don't you read the newspapers?

As The Economist pointed out, teenage pregnancy has been falling for years. "A girl aged between 15 and 19 today is about half as likely to have a baby in her teens as her grandmother was".

But that counter-intuitive fact can't compete with what the Tories "know" is going on. Perhaps that is why they were trumpeting off about their eye-catching stat without even checking it. As James Forsyth, Spectator political editor, astutely points out, the real damage is not a matter of arithmetic:

The Tories are facing embarrassment tonight after a document they released claim that 54 percent of young women under 18 in poor areas get pregnant when the actual number is 5.4 percent. It is easy to see how a mistake like this is made but it is still damaging and made more so by the fact that it gives Labour the opportunity to claim, as they are doing tonight, that the mistake shows that the Tories have no idea how the country actually lives.

UPDATE: LabourList have helpfully linked the Tory document.

The Tories are not just once again enormously out of touch with reality in the most deprived areas of Britain - remember Chris Grayling's "in many parts of British cities, The Wire has become a part of real life in this country" - but everywhere else too.

The report also claims that 19% of girls under 18 get pregnant in the most affluent areas of Britain. (That's 1.9%, or 19 in a 1000). Forsyth is most generous in calling this an easy mistake to make for a party claiming it is ready to govern.

In this fantasy Britain, there would be six pregnancies in every school class of 30 young women in, say, Witney, Oxfordshire, as against sixteen in a similar class in Moss Side, Manchester.

The Conservatives truly are living in a Dacre nightmareland.


Michael said...

I suppose the problem you have with calling the narrative 'bullshit' is that you have to convince people that what they see everyday isn't really true. Leave aside the Tories' spectacularly inept handling of statistics (most people I know have very little trust in any statistics whatever, wherever they come from), the fact is that the narrative chimes with the public because it seems to support the common experience of ordinary people - whatever the Economist may say.

Marching around saying it's 'bullshit' whilst our politicians tour their constituencies in stab-proof vests, our bankers screw society for personal gain, our teachers describe classrooms as battlegrounds, our towns and parks have become no-go zones most evenings, our social workers come across the most appalling instances of abuse, just to name but a few of the most obvious examples - well, I think you need to produce a little more than some statistics and a bit of bad language to turn the narrative around.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for your comment. Chris Grayling's defence of his dodgy crime statistics was that, whether right or wrong, they resonated with people. Clearly, it is difficult to have a debate *about evidence* if people want to retreat to a claim that stats are meaningless anyway.

But I think what attitude surveys have tended to show is that people tend to be more optimistic about their local area and their direct experiences, but believe the broader national picture is much worse. Part of the difference is how media coverage drives our perceptions. The Tories have sought to both benefit from and reinforce negative perceptions, and have done so effectively.

What they appear to have been unable to do is point to major areas (violent crime, teenage pregnancy) where things are getting worse. That is why the statistical slip would seem to be part of a broader pattern of having to stretch and invent evidence to fit an agenda.

The Economist articles offered an intelligent and nuanced account. Most macro trends show long-term and recent improvements; but this broad "broken society" claim simply misses the areas which should be of most concern in a more forensic and accurate account; there are important issues and pressures arising from growing inequality and other factors.

Doing much more to strengthen reciprocity and trust in society (at the top, at the bottom and everywhere else) is an important goal. This sort of scare-mongering isn't likely to help achieve it; rather the opposite.

Alistair Fitchett said...

What Michael says is true, up to a point, but isn't it a bit of a chicken and egg situation? Is the narrative people choose to see and repeat because that is the narrative mediated to them, or is the media narrative really reflecting what most people truly believe to be the case?

How do we as a society (nationally, globally) break the debilitating cycle of mistrust and fear? Is that even possible, or is it human nature?

Meanwhile, as someone who has been in teaching for a long time (admittedly not in an inner city environment, but nevertheless in a school with a significant number of students from a significantly deprived environment) I can tell you that teachers are notoriously bad at dwelling on the negative aspects of the job. It frustrates me no end that as a profession we are guilty of constructing a narrative that is full of gloom and despair, when the reality I see around me every day is not of a demonised mass, but of a huge number of young people who are valuable members of our community.

Until we, as a society, start to see and celebrate that fact then i'm afraid we are, to coin a phrase, 'fucked'.

Letters From A Tory said...

As pointed out above, the 'broken society' narrative is not just about crime or teenage pregnancy. It is about the breakdown of the foundations that underpin society.

Every international survey has the UK plummeting, be it on teenage STDs, drug abuse, family breakdown, youth unemployment etc etc. What kept society together in the past - a sense of community, people looking out for each other, feeling safe, loving families - it's all disappearing at an alarming rate.

If the Conservatives occasionally screw up their statistics, fine, call them on it, but don't pretend that everything is ok when people walk outside their front door because the public know that it isn't.

Sunder Katwala said...


No claim at all that "everything is OK" but challenging lurid distortions, which appear a very frequent pattern.

Its your "disappearing at an alarming rate" claim that is in question here, and which needs to be substantiated, though the increased social inequalities of last 30 years do contribute to social pressures.

International comparisons. Again, we would need to see which these are to know if they stand up.

Teen pregnancy un UK quite a lot lower than long-term, and down a bit in last 10 years. But it also remains high in European comparisons, excepting Netherlands, though about half the US rate. On which of these issues is it the case that Britain is slipping down league tables recently?

You mention youth unemployment: The Tories made a dodgy headline claim before xmas that we had the worst youth unemployment in Europe, when fact is we are 13th/24 on the youth unemployment rate. (The Tories were counting the simple number of unemployed young people, to ensure they put large countries top!)

Michael said...


Thanks for the response. Just one thing;

"Clearly, it is difficult to have a debate *about evidence* if people want to retreat to a claim that stats are meaningless anyway."

At the same time, people's general experience is 'evidence', too, and shouldn't be dismissed simply because it hasn't been quantified by statistics which, as I have already suggested, tend to induce bouts of scepticism anyway. I'll give you an example - I lived on a street where we suffered, for the best part of a year, petty vandalism and car damage. Did any of us keep on reporting it? No, of course not, what good would it do? We knew from experience (and I knew from personal experience) that getting the police involved solved nothing, the vandalism didn't stop, the goods (car aerials) were never returned, and the time and effort was essentially wasted. At the same time, we had flyers from our local council telling us all how crime had dropped in the area, and this was because of effective policing. Of course, for the police it is a case of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and I don't envy the position they are in - but nonetheless I think this demonstrates the disconnect I'm trying to voice between experience and your call for 'evidence'.

Which might also feed into the 'broken society' narrative, a case that is constructed on a much broader base than just tables and charts. I tend to think that whilst, admittedly, it can in certain cases be counter-productive (it all too often demonises the poorest, when it seems to me that some of the most poisonous elements of society are to be found at the top), nonetheless it does also focus the mind on the problem, and unite people behind the recognition of it, and galvanise them into trying to seek solutions and remedies for it. Which, it seems to me, is a good thing.

Robert said...

Well said Michael

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the response. That is a problem with simple 'reported crime' stats, which go up when for example the police make greater efforts to record domestic violence, and go down when people just don't bother in the example which you give.

However, the British Crime Survey has had a consistent methodology, and is designed to catch the sorts of things that don't get officially reported.

I agree the low level aggravation of minor disorder has a significant impact on both quality of life and perceptions of crime more broadly. (And that has driven some of the anti-social behaviour agenda of which we liberal lefties can often be critical). As you acknowledge, the "broken society' argument can also be negative, segregating and demonising.

The argument for contribution and putting something in is very central to the Fabian 'Solidarity Society' book, because it is right and because we are concerned with that falling sense of solidarity. So there may be some common ground between us, in the midst of a disagreement.

Michael said...

Lol - if I was to sum up my position to most of what you write, Sunder, it would be 'common ground in the midst of a disagreement'!

Anyway, thanks for the responses - appreciated.