Recently I have been thinking about politics and truth, and the relationship they have. Before you say that politicians wouldn't know truth if it did Gangnam Style in front of them (I'm all about "topical" pop-culture references!), let me pose the question that has been bugging me.
Should politicians base policy on truth, or on public perception?
The obvious answer is that they should be based on truth. But what if that truth is at odds to what the public believes to be true?
Let's look at two of the big issues in Britain today, welfare and immigration.
When the Trade Union Congress (TUC) asked, to the nearest pound, "Out of every £100 spent from the welfare budget, can you tell me how much of that is claimed fraudulently?" the average answer was £27. In fact, it is 70p (so £1 would have been the correct answer, due to the wording of the questionnaire).1
Yet it seems that the Government is attempting to tackle this obscene level of fraud (0.7%) by making life even more difficult for those who need benefits. To add some context, according to the Government's own number, 1.4% of the welfare budget is paid in error (either by claimant or officials).2 The public wants action on the high levels of fraud, which doesn't exist, but there doesn't seem to be a call for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to reduce its mistakes.
A report from Ipsos MORI asked people to estimate the percentage of British population who are foreign-born. The average guess was 31%. The official estimate is 13-14%.3 We were told to fear a tidal wave of Bulgarians and Romanians when Big Ben bonged in the New Year, but very few turned up (I apologise, I can't seem to find numbers to back this up.)
Should politicians do what the public wants? Or does it have a responsibility to correct the public, and debate from fact.
A politician has to be popular to be re-elected, and so it seems obvious that they will act on what the voters see as the main issues. The fact that the public's misconceptions may also play into a particular ideology, all the better. But does this mean that the policy, from the outset if flawed? Back to the welfare example. With the hoops one must jump through to get benefits they should be entitled to getting ever smaller and higher, many are being left in destitution as the DWP tries to reduce fraud. And then there is the whole question about the role of the media in influencing the the political agenda.
But I think society would be better if policy was based on the actual facts, to make life a better place for everyone. There would still be plenty of debate to have; what a better place would look like, for example.
And it's not just the issue of policy based on misconception being flawed, but it what the lies do to those one benefits, for example. The term 'Skivers or Strivers' is now used by many. If you are on benefits you are a lazy, workshy, scrounger who is on the fiddle. It doesn't matter that you were made unemployed due to the economic downturn and are applying for every job that comes along. Or if you are unable to take a job due to a disability. You are all the same, a drain on resources, who doesn't deserve even £71 a week.
Imagine the effect it must have on the morale of people who just want a job so they can have a decent standard of living. Theolgian and all round wonderful person Vicky Beeching summed it up in her Thought for the Day on Thursday. She said:
"Through our positive, truthful utterances, people are renewed and healed. Through our criticism and lies, people are damaged and destroyed."4
I don't have an answer to my original question, though if any politics students want a dissertation topic, just mention me in your acknowledgements. But I found Vicky's statement very powerful. Whether policy is based on truth or perception, we must recognise the power that truth and lies can have.
2 DWP (PDF Download)
3 Ipsos MORI (PDF Download)