OPINION27 April 2010

Never mind the numbers


Statistics are getting a bad press in the current election campaign.

After the first leaders’ debate, Gordon Brown was widely criticised for (among other things) relying too heavily on stats. He clearly hadn’t been listening to Peter Kellner’s advice last year that parties should try to “offer a policy that people can relate to in terms of their daily lives, rather than talk about billions of pounds or tens of thousands of teachers, doctors and nurses. The public simply don’t relate to these big macro numbers and statements”.

Labour say their man is all about substance, not style, but the problem is that people don’t really like substance as much as they say they do.

On the other hand, quoting too many stats is better than disregarding them completely. This morning the shadow home secretary Chris Grayling found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to argue that crime had gone up under Labour, while accepting that the figures showed it had gone down.

The BBC’s Evan Davis asked: “What does it mean to say that [Britain] is a more violent place than it was ten years ago if, in the best statistics [the British Crime Survey, which the independent stats authority says is the best source], there is less violence than there was ten years ago? I don’t understand how you can jump from agreeing that crime has gone down and then say it’s a more violent place than ten years ago.”

Grayling’s reply tells us everything we need to know about politicians’ attitude to stats: “I don’t think it’s just about figures, it’s about what people see in their communities.”

Clearly Grayling wants to tap into the perception that crime is on the rise, and no amount of quantitative data is going to stand in his way. He went on to reel off some lurid examples of stabbings and shootings on Britain’s streets.

“What is your point by quoting an individual anecdote or two?” asked Davis. “Is your point that we should draw conclusions about national crime policy from one or two specific anecdotes that you’ve picked up?”

Still, if no-one cares about stats, that leaves less for the pollsters to worry about.