Lies, Damned Lies and Politicians

If you haven’t yet heard the Diane Abbott interview on LBC please try to – it lives up to the hype better than an Anthony Joshua fight. I always said this blog would be a politics-free zone, but I suggest this purely from an entertainment viewpoint. I doubted whether the general public would be interested in the election so soon after Brexit, but this corker elevates politics to above You’ve Been Framed and YouTube cat videos in the nation’s playlist of mirth.

What was most interesting to me, through the whole excruciatingly clumsy and exquisitely funny four minutes, was not that a politician was squirming their way through an interview (and they really weren’t difficult questions – Nick Ferrari was surprisingly gentle) with bluster and delay and hollow soundbites. Sadly, we are all too used to that for it to be newsworthy. It was both the complete disregard for facts and the agonisingly inept grasp of mathematics that was breathtaking.

When I was a Maths teacher I was astonished at how readily people accepted their numerical failings. I know I’m biased, but you wouldn’t get people cheerily admitting that they can’t read and write. Yet an understanding of data really is quite a useful thing if we are not to all think that drink driving is safer than driving sober because more accidents are caused by sober drivers. With my lawyer’s hat on, and for the avoidance of doubt, more accidents are caused by sober drivers but that doesn’t mean drink driving is safer and you would be even more moronic than a politician to think so!

(The answer, by the way, to this woeful state of affairs in education is perhaps counter-intuitive – pay teachers more and you get better teachers and better learning. If you rewind three generations teachers were on a par, financially and in the esteem of the public, with doctors and lawyers, yet a teacher now earns a third of those counterparts. Anyhow, this solution will never be adopted and I promised this was not going to become political.)

Let’s look at the numbers from that interview yesterday:-

Abbott started with a figure of £300,000 to pay for 10,000 new police officers, which Ferrari rightly derided. Even without a calculator, Abbott should have known that £300,000 is unlikely to pay for many police officers and certainly not 10,000. She could of course have realised at this point that things were going disastrously wrong and admitted that she didn’t have the figures to hand, but a panicked mix of arrogance and stubbornness got in the way and she decided to continue flailing around and simply making up numbers off the top of her head in the vain hope that Ferrari would move on.

“Haha, no. I mean… sorry. They will cost… they will, it will cost, erm, about… about £80 million.”

Somehow, over the next few minutes, 10,000 new officers became 25,000, then 250,000 and in the final stuttering denouement “2000….and perhaps 250”. This, remember, is the shadow home secretary scatter-gunning zeros around like place value is as irrelevant as, say, the truth in an election campaign. In the final words she seemed to have found her notes and rattled off some ‘accurate’ numbers in the hope that it would restore some confidence in her woeful performance. It didn’t.

Let me make this clear:- I do not expect our MPs to be perfect and I certainly do not expect them to all hold Maths degrees. Abbott will probably not be the last to make an idiot of herself in this election campaign, and I expect those that join her will be spread across the political spectrum. We all make mistakes and most of us are just lucky that ours are not aired on live radio or TV.

What would be nice, though, is if they could admit they were wrong. Abbott had so many opportunities to do so, throughout the interview and afterwards (when she claimed she had merely misspoken and really did know her numbers), and that she chose not to is surely more destructive to her image, her party’s chances , and the electorate’s opinion of politicians in the long run.

It would also be nice, in an ideal world, if our MPs had at least some grasp of maths. They are, after all, tasked with making important decisions on our behalf and most of those decisions will have numbers involved somewhere along the line. 10,000 new police officers is a really very different proposal to 250,000, and £300,000 is a very different slice of the pie to £300 million.

Perhaps the most startling statistics revealed yesterday, and in the best traditions of statistics these are of course entirely made up on the spot, are that 63% of MPs don’t know their arse from their elbow and 89% would rather squirm, deflect, fudge and bluster than admit they were wrong. If those figures are true, the next two months will be tiresome and the future of our country is in a worse state than I already thought.

(And the answer, by the way, to this woeful state of affairs in politics is certainly counter-intuitive – pay MPs more and you get better MPs, but that is also unlikely to happen!)