I’m lucky, I was always good at maths at school so I’m comfortable with numbers. I know a lot of people aren’t which is a shame because numbers are very important in life. It’s not just that they are the language of science and describe the universe we live in, or even making sure you don’t get shortchanged at the shops, they tell us about the issues that affect us day to day.
I haven’t had my tax statement from that nice Mr Osborne yet, but I gather that it will give me a breakdown of how my tax pound is spent. The biggest item is ‘Welfare’. What image does that draw for you? Third generation feckless, workshy scroungers? Or retired hard working pensioners? Because you should know that most of the welfare spending in this country goes to pensioners, disabled people and children.
Winston Churchill talked about “Lies, damned lies and statistics” and there is a danger of being bamboozled by clever manipulation of numbers. But there is another danger of not looking at the statistics and going on gut instinct. The problem is that most people’s gut is wrong.
Most people think they have more chance of winning the lottery than getting cancer, unfortunately it’s the other way round. In fact you have more chance being killed by a car walking to the newsagent to buy your lottery ticket, than of winning the jackpot. And buying two tickets doesn’t double your chances of winning.
Or take immigration. A recent report found that British people think on average that immigrants make up 24.4% of the population when it is actually about 13%, according to the 2011 census. If that’s what people think it’s no wonder UKIP are doing so well.
At a local level I was getting fed up of hearing that everyone ‘below’ Cross Flatts Park in Beeston was Asian and only white people live ‘above’ the park. So I went to look at the census data on the Neighbourhood Statistics website.
It turns out that there are about 1,400 people who describe their ethnicity as Asian ‘above’ the park, about 10%. Meanwhile 3,000 Asians live ‘below’ the park, still only about 35% or just of a third. Can I just throw that fact into the Aspiring Communities debate?
I want to pause at this point to dispel some myths about Super Output Areas. I recently heard the phrase “We need more help because we’ve got Super Output Areas in South Leeds”. In fact everywhere in the UK has Super Output Areas, they nothing more nor less than a geographical division of the country. The Census uses them as building blocks to build up their data sets.
I think the confusion arose when they started being used more widely alongside the Index of Multiple Deprivation a few years ago. What the speaker I quoted meant to say was “We have Super Output Areas that are amongst the 10% most deprived in the country.”
Getting back to numbers, Oxfam’s latest advert points out that just 85 people in the world own as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest souls on the planet.
What’s that got to do with immigration and tax statements? Well it seems to me that that there are two big issues feeding the UKIP-ers fears. One is the aforementioned over-estimation of the numbers of people coming into the country (and the fact that EU migrants contribute more than they consume). The second is that it’s getting harder to get good public services. Whether it’s getting a council house, or proper care for your elderly mother, or treatment on the NHS.
What’s missing from this analysis is that the two are not related. We have a government that wants a ‘small state’ rather than a welfare state. They are making unprecedented cuts to public services. It may have been a Labour council that closed Middleton Park golf course, but it was a Conservative & Liberal Democratic government that made them choose between golfers and care for the elderly. Meanwhile gap between rich and poor, in Britain and internationally is growing wider every day.
So my message to you is to check your facts. Make sure you know what you’re being told and use the tools that are available to find out for yourself.
I’ll be back in next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.