Sunday, 20 October 2013

Why some politicians are viewed as untrustworthy

A post provoked by being sick and tired of misleading or plain wrong information coming from politicians and political groups. Apparently, its not just me - reports looking at the causes of voter dissatisfaction can be found here and here

Perhaps we can break the issue down by looking at the types of approach taken by politicians and political parties when misleading the public or otherwise behaving in an untrustworthy fashion.

Cherry picking and generally distorting data
Using hopelessly weak data to justify policy
Hiding or burying data and reports that are embarrassing
Not practicing what they preach
Rowdiness, heckling and bad manners
Answering the question they want to answer, not the one actually asked
Railroading important legislation through Parliament without scrutiny
Just being plain stupid
Living on a different planet


** Cherry picking and generally distorting data **

Dec 2013 : LibDems : Misleading Party Membership Tweets
New Statesman report on a Tweet from LibDem Press Office says "The Liberal Democrats are the first governing party in recent history to have increased its membership while in power" and links to a story saying:
"Figures released by the party showed that in the last three months of the year membership grew by more than 2,000 – wiping out reductions seen in the first two quarters of 2013. Overall the party will go into 2014 with over 200 new members – which is an achievement not matched by their Conservative coalition partners who have seen steep falls in paid membership since 2010."

What the Tweet (which talked about "while in power", remember) didn't mention is that the recent small increase in membership comes after a precipitous fall from 65,038 in 2010 to 42,501 in 2012.


Labour : Millibands misleading Unemployment Statistics
A rather wonderful article in the Guardian, points out a number of instances where senior politicians have said some very misleading things. Posssibly willfully, or (more worryingly) because they genuinely do not understand how to interpret basic data.

BFTF's favourite is Ed Milliband saying:
"Only crisis-hit Spain has higher numbers of young unemployed people than the UK"

without realising that this was a meaningless statistic. As the article sensibly points out :
The UK has a lot more of everything than most European countries, because it has a lot more people than most European countries. What matters if you're making a comparison with other countries is not how many under-25s are unemployed, but what percentage of them. In that regard, the UK is 10th best out of 27.


Oct 2012 : Employment rate of people aged 16-64(inc) who were born in the UK
A Tweet from Conservative Central Office showed the graph below :

The Tweet from CCHQ Press Office

The Chart the Tweet from CCHQ linked to

Crikey, thought BFTF, the Conservatives have done an impressive job here, the number of UK born people in work has almost doubled in just three years.

Then BFTF thought "Hang on, surely it would take many years, possibly decades to achieve that kind of huge demographic change"

Then BFTF noticed the scale on the Y-axis, which goes from 69.5% to 72.5% in 0.5% increments, making the change seem very large, when it is actually very small.

This is PRECISELY the kind of misleading information that results in politicans being viewed as untrustworthy.

There are two possibilities here:

1) CCHQ cynically manipulated the Y-axis scale to make the change seem artificially large.

2) CCCHQ do not know how to use Microsoft Excel and/or do not realise that the graph is grossly misleading.

BFTF is not sure which of these is more scary.

This is how the Graph looks with the Y-axis starting at zero:

The same data plotted with a Y-axis set to 0-100%

And this is how it looks with the Y-axis starting at 50% and going to 100%:

The same data plotted with a Y-axis set to 50-100%

Doesn't look so impressive now, does it?

Finally, would like to emphasise that this is not an anti-Conservative post, BFTF fully expects to see this kind of misleading information from all parties, more examples as and when they are seen.

Update 20th Oct:
Comment from No3 Son is that Conservative Central Office should "behave more maturely".

Feb 14 : Misleading and difficult to interpret graph in 2103 Infrastructure Plan
Check out the dangerously misleading chart on page 9 of the 2013 Infrastructure Plan, which is more realistically shown in this FT article.

. The report introduces the chart by saying the following :
"Most of the value of the [investment] pipeline is in the energy and transport sectors, worth over £340 billion of combined investment (as highlighted in the chart below, which shows investment on a logarithmic scale)."

Roughly how much larger is the biggest bar compared to the smallest bar?


Dec 2013 : More examples of shoddy graphs from Full Fact
Great article from FullFact here. BFTF notes in particular the misleading Conservative employment increase graph which can also be found here


** Using hopelessly weak data to justify policy **

Nov 2013 : Education Secretary using surveys by Holiday Inn as evidence
A report in the Guardian describes how the Education Secretary commented that:

"Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58% think Sherlock Holmes was real."

Retired teacher Janet Jones challenged him on this using a Freedom Of Information request and, after several weeks, received the information that the statistics had come from a UKTV Gold survey and that they had no details on it. It also turned out that the phrase "survey after survey" referred to surveys by Premier Inn and an article in London Mums magazine. No evidence was presented that the surveys met the standards of the the British Polling Council.

BFTF notes that, irrespective of the accuracy of the statistics used, these stories NEVER have any historical context. Is the %age of kids who know who Admiral Nelson (say) going up? Going down? Nobody ever says.


** Hiding or burying data and reports that are embarrassing **

2014 : Conservative Party Archives
In 2007, David Cameron said "It's clear to me that political leaders will have to learn to let go. Let go of the information that we've guarded so jealously".

In 2010 the Conservative Party removed the publically accessible archive from its public facing website, erasing records of speeches and press releases from 2000 to 2010 - including, critically, those prior to the last election. The records were also removed from Google Search and from the Internet Archive. As of 31st Aug, points towards the UK Web Archive for "For old speeches, manifestos and news items", where around 40 records can be found, covering the period 2004 to 2014.

As of 31st Aug, the Labour Party website list of speeches also only goes as far back as 2010. BFTF notes that old speeches are not dated, which is unhelpful. Have challenged Labour party on this point.

In both cases, this makes it difficult to check BACK TO THE OFFICIAL SOURCE, what was claimed by these two parties prior to the last election, whether they have kept their promises and make a view as to whether their words can be trusted this time around.

Speeches (not sure how many) can still be found at


** Not practicing what they preach **

Dec 14 : Extravagance by the Lords
During a recent Palace of Westminster governance meeting, this happened :
"..a proposal to save taxpayers some money by making peers and MPs share a catering department has been rejected “because the Lords feared that the quality of champagne would not be as good if they chose a joint service”...The astonished chair of the committee, former home secretary Jack Straw, asked: “Did you make that up? Is that true?”
No, they didn't make it up. Yes, it was true.


** Rowdiness, heckling and bad manners **

Dec 13 : All parties at the Foodbank Debate

A post about this, very interesting, debate can be found here. But what really let the MP's down was they behaviour. The booing, jeering and general disorderliness would not be acceptable in any branch of business or industry, so why MP's think it is acceptable to behave so badly in a debate that WAS DEMANDED BY THE PUBLIC is quite beyond me. Some measure of the rowdinessm especially in the first hour, can be seen in the interventions that the deputy speaker was forced to make, as shown below:

Interventions by the Deputy Speaker during
the first hour of the Foodbank Debate 18 Dec 2013


** Answering the question they want to answer, not the one asked **

Oct 2012 : Conservative : Government ignores questions about airstrike killings
A post here explains how the US - which is the UK's closest military ally - has been using "double tap" airstikes in which an initial attack is followed up by a second missile that kills first responders and rescuers trying to save any wounded survivors from the first attack. This is a WAR CRIME.

BFTF challenged the government on this. The Government (when the eventually answered) chose not to address the issue of "Double Tap" airstikes at all and instead answered a different question entirely.



** Railroading important legislation through Parliament **

Oct 2015 : Tax Credit cuts pushed though Parliament with reduced oversight.
Oct 2015 : Prior to the 2015 General Election, the Conservative Party refused to say where the £12bn of cuts they intended to impose would actually fall, and in a Question Time debate, David Cameron strongly implied that Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits would not be hit.

Both of these credits allow people to keep some of their welfare payments if they take up work, with the credits gradually tailing off as the persons earnings rise. The intent was to remove the moral hazard whereby people had no incentive to take on low pay jobs because they would lose immediately be worse off because of the loss of welfare. They are not cheap, costing some 14% of the welfare budget, but according to the IFS, reducing the credits back to 2003 levels would take some 300,000 children into poverty, and reduce income by well over £1000pa for many of these working, but low earning, families. More info here)and here.

Having sailed through the Commons, the House of Lords has just rejected legislation to reduce Tax Credits, saying that the implementation should be delayed until until there is a plan for transitional protection. Senior Conservatives are angry that the Lords has done this, saying that the Lords should not vote against financial matters and that it raises "constitutional issues that need to be dealt with".

That would be true if the cuts has been mentioned in the Conservative Manifesto - but they were not.

It would have been true if the cuts had been introduced in a formal Bill - but they were not.

If would NOT be true if the cuts were pushed through parliament using a "statutory instrument" - which is what was actually used.
v According to author Ian Dunt :

"Statutory instruments mean you can quickly get a change to the law through parliament without the usual standards of debate and scrutiny. They are there to facilitate small changes in law which do not require much debate. But they have grown into a democratic menace, with governments regularly using them to sneak in substantial legal changes without submitting them to the will of parliament. But here's the good thing about statutory instruments: the Lords can vote against them"


** Just being plain stupid **

Nov 2013 : US bid to name “Science Laureate” hits snag.
A report from Arstechnica describes how a US proposal to have a "Science Laureate" to show the US public how important science is. The legislation was going through Congress pretty smoothly until Conservative Republicans hit the roof and demanded that it be pulled, despite it having Republican and Democrat sponsors. The commment that really caught NSB's eye was from Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute who said "There’s no way to make it would still give scientists an opportunity to pontificate, and we’re opposed to it.” (Thanks to @drkiki for the link)


** Living on a different planet **

In the wake of David Cameron off-shore funds scandal, Sir Alan Duncan, the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, commented thus in the house of commons:
"Shouldn't the Prime Minister's critics really just snap out of the synthetic indignation and admit that their real point is that they hate anyone who has got a hint of wealth in them?...May I support the Prime Minister in fending off those who are attacking him, particularly in thinking of this place, because if he doesn't, we risk seeing a House of Commons which is stuffed full of low-achievers who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family and know absolutely nothing about the outside world."

So you see, it is the little people who have to pay taxes for teachers, roads, policemen and hospitals - while the very rich can focus on making sure THEIR money stays in the family.

And let us pause for a moment here to remember that as the country was in the midst of global eonomic crash of 2008 onwards, there were MP's who thought the best way to demonstrate that we are all in it together was to claim expenses for moat cleaning.