An email arrives from Grant Shapps, chairman of the Tory Party, listing the things the Coalition has achieved in four years. Here they are:-
Our economy has grown faster than any other major advanced nation (True – since last year)
There are more people in work than ever before (True – and amazing)
We’ve continued to reduce the deficit – down by a half since 2010 (Porkie)
A million more children are in schools ranked ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, getting a great start in life (True)
We’ve delivered 2 million apprenticeships since 2010, helping young people learn a trade (True-ish. This includes apprenticeships for over 25s, so it rather stretches the definition of ‘young’)
Our Help to Buy scheme has helped tens of thousands of people buy their first home (True – alas)
Income tax has been cut for over 24 million hardworking people (True)
Those who have worked hard all their lives are getting more security in retirement, with the State Pension increased (True – at great expense)
So almost all of these are solid and laudable achievements. But doubt is, alas, cast over all of them by the inclusion of a porkie. By no stretch of the English language is the deficit “down by a half since 2010”. George Osborne’s original plan was to do at least that (see below) but when economic headwinds strengthened he decided to borrow more – and delay deficit reduction (see above).
Let’s take 2010, the year Shapps mentions. In the first six months of 2010 the government borrowed an extra £65.9 billion. In the first six months of 2014 year, it was £44.2 billion – so down by a third. Economists currently reckon it will be 2016 before the deficit will be half what it was in 2010.
As we know, the Tories are using the Ed Balls ‘false proxy’ tactic. Which goes like this:-
“When we say ‘deficit’, we assume the reader will instantly think of a of ratio: specifically, deficit/gdp ratio. Economists regard this ratio as being more useful than a cash deficit, so when we say ‘deficit’ we reckon most people will think ‘deficit/gdp ratio’. And this ratio has halved. So it’s (kinda) true to say ‘the deficit has halved’.
I don’t dispute that deficit/gdp ratio is a valid metric. But my problem is about language, not economics. The word ‘deficit’ cannot be redefined: it is the amount of money a government has to borrow in order to finance its spending. This has not been halved, and no amount of spin can prove otherwise.
The remedy is honesty. If Shapps wants to use the magic word “halved” he should say that the deficit/GDP ratio has halved. That would be honest. But if he wants to stick to the more simpler phrase “deficit” he needs to say it’s down by a third.
So why is Shapps – usually a very honest politician – stretching the truth until the elastic snaps? My hunch is that he is under orders. The Treasury has decreed that the deficit has halved, and every Tory MP has been ordered to say this. The calculation is that, apart from bloggers, no one will really pick them up on it because what journalist wants to bore their readers with arguments involving phrases like “deficit/GDP ratio”?
This is what happens in general elections. This is how a Political Porkie starts its life. You launch the porkie, take a bit of flak, wait for the flak to die down then keep on selling the porkie.
Take Gordon Brown. In the 2005 election, he claimed that the Tories would cut £35bn from public services. This was untrue: he meant the Tories would increase it, but by £35bn less than Labour would. Brown argued that if you bulldoze this porkie through, then journalists will get bored of challenging it. And thus the public is successfully misled.
Brown did find opposition, though. When he launched the above poster, the BBC’s Nick Robinson was invited along. Robinson went berserk, asking Tony Blair why he was misrepresenting Tory policies. It made the Daily Mail’s front page (right), but then the issue was dropped. This is how the news cycle works: if you want to launch a misleading fact, you can expect some push-back at first. But you calculate that it’ll go away, and then you can spend the rest of the campaign misleading folk. And telling yourself that, technically, you’re not really misleading.
It is now clear that the Tories intend to fight this general election claiming to have halved the deficit. This would be deeply foolish. Every other claim they are making is true: there are more people in work than ever before. Two million kids are in better schools. And saying that the deficit is down by half, rather than a third, pollutes the whole thing by throwing something that isn’t true into a bunch of things that are true. Worse, it casts doubt on general Tory credibility.
Now, I think an Ed Miliband government would be a calamity for Britain. I’m very keen for David Cameron to win. But I’m a journalist, not a propagandist. People like me, who called out Labour for misleading people about debt in this way, cannot be expected to cheer when the Tories use the same tactic for the same reasons.
One final thing. The 2015 will be a digital campaign – in the digital world, low-life journalists like me have endless time, resources and energy to plough into calling out politicians’ attempts to mislead. You could (just about) get away with using misleading finance statistics in 2005, but not so much in 2015. The Tories are deploying a minor distortion of the truth – it’s just not worth sacrificing a hard-won reputation for honesty. If I were Shapps, I’d ask Osborne to kindly furnish CCHQ with a campaign line that is more arresting and true. It’s just December: there is still time.