Friday, 29 April 2016

The hypocrisy of British politics

The Labour party has a problem with antisemitism almost by definition. This is because many Labour party members are highly critical of the current democratically elected government of Israel, and Israel often identifies itself as a Jewish state. So difficult questions naturally arise, like are attacks on the existence of the state of Israel also antisemitic? But these problems can, and should, be addressed and dealt with. (For what it is worth, I personally would answer yes to my previous question.)

Does that mean that anyone who has made antisemitic remarks in the past must be excluded from the Labour party, even if they apologise and fully retract those remarks today? Here I would agree with John Rentoul that the answer has to be no. In particular, because this kind of antisemitism can be frequently found in Muslim communities, it is important to encourage those from these communities who now acknowledge their past mistakes the chance to atone for them by pointing out similar mistakes to others, rather than branding them for life.

Now for the hypocrisy. A week ago, our Prime Minister accused the Labour candidate for mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, with knowingly sharing a platform 9 times with Suliman Gani, a former imam in Tooting (Khan’s constituency) who the Prime Minister said was a supporter of IS. Now if Mr. Gani was a known supporter of IS, this would have been a serious charge against Khan. The only problem is that he is not.

It is not just that Mr. Gani denies being a supporter of IS, and those that know him or have met him think the accusation is obviously false. It is not just that he is a member of many interfaith groups. It is not just that the Prime Minister has produced no evidence that he is an IS supporter.  It is also that he has had many meetings with Conservative MPs including the Conservative candidate for London mayor. He has visited No.10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament.

Try to imagine how you would feel if the Prime Minister had announced in Parliament that you were an IS supporter. If you are thinking to yourself that would never happen, because you are not a Muslim imam, then I think you should now realise why what the Prime Minister did is so serious and damaging. It is also why any claim by the Prime Minister that his remarks had nothing to do with either Khan’s or Gani’s religion would be at best naive, and more likely a straight lie.

The Conservative candidate for mayor of London, Zac Goldsmith, has run a dog whistle campaign, where he has tried to associate Sadiq Khan with Muslim extremism. He is reported to has described Gani as “one of the most repellent figures in this country”. Does it worry him that Gani has been associated with a number of prominent Conservatives, including himself?! Probably not, because Goldsmith is not a Muslim, so any guilt by association charge would be ridiculous. His opponent and Labour candidate Sadiq Khan is a Muslim. That is the key difference.

Khan is a Muslim, but is clearly not an extremist in any shape or form. The Conservative attacks are based not on Khan’s political views or actions but his religion. How else can Goldsmith justify painting Khan as an extremist for sharing platforms with Gani, when Goldsmith and his colleagues have asked Gani to help recruit other Muslims to the Conservative party. 

If nothing is done about this, similar tactics could (and presumably would in any future election [1]) be applied to any Muslim standing in an election. It also means that if you are a Muslim who happens to know a Muslim candidate, then you may be called an IS supporter by the Prime Minister in the Houses of Parliament (where libel laws do not apply). Basically the Prime Minister and his party are playing to Islamophobia, and treating individuals with the same disregard as tabloid newspapers in order to do so.

It may be fair to criticise the Labour leadership for not being tough enough on antisemitism within Labour, although it is also perfectly fair to allow people time to get the facts and quite unreasonable to have trial by media. But no one could accuse the current Labour leadership of completely ignoring the problem. In contrast, the Prime Minister has made no apology to Mr. Gani over his accusation in parliament, and the Conservative candidate for London mayor continues to use his opponents religion as a weapon against him.

[1] The man who is currently the favourite to be our next Prime Minister is quite happy to link the views of the President of the United States on Brexit to his Kenyan ancestry. The defence minister Michael Fallon has even gone so far to suggest Khan is a security risk.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Politicians and statistics

We should all know never to take a statistic quoted by a politician on trust. But there is a huge difference between the ways in which politicians can (mis)use statistics.

Take, for example, when Labour before the 2015 election kept saying people were £1,600 worse off than they were 5 years earlier. As Tim Harford notes, there are a lot of issues in making any general claim based on earnings data. But as Geoff Tily points out, the £1,600 is hardly a wild exaggeration or gross distortion. It pointed to a key fact, which was an unprecedented decline in real earnings which no one seriously disputes. It would have been incredible if Labour had not kept talking about this.

Tim writes that it represents “a political use of statistics conducted with little interest in understanding or describing reality.” Of course it does not describe the complexity of reality, the differences between the median wage and the experience of the median worker, etc etc. Those complexities need to be set out and Tim does so brilliantly. But politicians in speeches will never do that, and it would be unrealistic to expect them to do so. There is also no evidence presented which justifies the claim that this statistic was used with little interest in understanding or describing reality.

Take another example from a recent post of mine. George Osborne had derived the cost of Brexit by taking the GDP loss and dividing it by the number of UK households. Fraser Nelson, and subsequently Anthony Reuben at the BBC, objected that this was dishonesty (Nelson) or confusion (Reuben) because only about two thirds of GDP was household income. Typical you might think for this Chancellor to misuse statistics to exaggerate. Yet as I explained in the post, what the Chancellor had done was standard practice by economists, because less government spending or investment are also in an important sense costs to households. In that case too, a politician was using a summary statistic in a reasonable way.

You might say that it is best for politicians to avoid quoting numbers, but numbers are often crucial. Take the claim, often made by opponents of immigration, that it reduces wages of low earning workers. There are studies that find that, but as this neat chart from the CER shows the magnitude is small relative to other influences on earnings. (See Jonathan Portes for more discussion on this.)

Magnitudes are often crucial. It is true, for example, that fiscal policy before the financial crisis was a little on the lax side. But the magnitudes involved could have been corrected by any new Chancellor in one budget with hardly anyone noticing. They are a world away from the magnitudes required to claim Labour were profligate before the crisis, and that austerity was required to clear up the mess that Labour had created. Given the importance (to the result) of that claim before the 2015 general election, it is odd indeed to focus instead on Labour’s claims about real earnings losses.  

The other examples Tim discusses in his article - Trump’s crime statistics and Jeremy Hunt’s figures for excess weekend deaths - are indeed totally or highly dubious, for reasons Tim makes very clear. Or an example that is close to my heart: the Prime Minister claiming that they had not cut spending on flood defences, which could be made to be true but hardly describes reality. These are all examples where the politician wants to mislead people. It is this misuse of statistics that we should focus on.