Saturday 1 February 2014


Still sticking to Thursday night's Newsnight like a limpet covered in super glue,  there was another 'cost of living crisis' report from the BBC's Andy Verity, based on a report by the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies). 

Labour seized on Thursday's IFS report, saying that it showed that the coalition government was responsible for a dramatic fall in living standards, and Andy Verity's report gave an interpretation of the IFS's findings that began by offering a little bit of comfort for the government and then, step by step, took away that comfort, resulting in a take on the IFS's findings that was barely different to Labour's. (Former TUC chief economist) Ian Brinkley of the Work Foundation was on hand (as a 'talking head') to say that things are going to feel any better for those at the bottom end of the incomes scale. 

The following day the ONS (Office for National Statistics) published its own findings on the same subject (specifically wages), also noting the dramatic fall in living standards but saying that the 'key driver' in that decline was the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008-09, when Labour were in power, and that wage growth has been slowing for decades. Labour were less keen to trumpet that, for understandable reasons, and Newsnight failed to return to the issue on Friday night's edition, which is a shame.

Thankfully, Radio 4's More or Less gave a less loaded overview than Newsnight, and would even have dealt with the 2008-09 period if the ONS's website hadn't been down while they were doing their research into those figures. 

I also enjoyed More or Less's handy guide to the way the wages issue has been spun by the main parties. Here's the exchange between Tim Harford and Charlotte McDonald:
Tim: The Labour Party says real wages are falling while the government says they're rising, and I have a sneaking suspicion that both of them are, in their own narrow way, right. Now, Charlotte McDonald's here and, Charlotte, let me give you a task. Let's say you're a spokeswoman for the Labour Party and you would like to make falling living standards look as serious as possible. How would you do that?
Charlotte: Oh, that's not that hard. First, I'd avoid talking about what happened before 2010 because there was a massive banking crisis and recession and it's probably best not mentioned. But within that constraint, I'd pick a nice long time period and add up all the trouble over many years.
Tim: And what about inflation? Because these claims are all about whether earnings have kept pace with inflation, or not.
Charlotte: Well, obviously, I'd pick the RPI measure, which is higher than the CPI measure that is now more commonly used and I'd use wages before tax is deducted because that would make the problem look bigger. 
Tim: Right, so all of that would make things look as bad as they possibly could, and what conclusion would you reach? 
Charlotte: Well, that people are £1,600 worse off than at the time of the general election. Which by an astonishing coincidence is indeed the Labour Party's position!
Tim: OK. Now imagine you're speaking on behalf of the government. How would you make things look as rosy as possible?
Charlotte: Well, I'd compare April 2012 with April 2013. That's because wages in April 2013 were unusually high...
Tim: Why's that?
Charlotte: Well, you were discussing it earlier in the programme. The top rate of tax fell in April 2013 and so people delayed receiving bonuses. So there was an artificial tax-related blip.
Tim: OK, so that would increase apparent wage growth. What else would you do to make things look cheery?
Charlotte: I'd compare wages with the CPI measure of inflation, which was half a percentage point lower than the RPI over the year in question and I'd look at wages after tax because personal allowances have risen and that's increased some people's take-home pay. 
Tim: Genius! And what conclusion would you reach?
Charlotte: That for 90% of earners - all but the richest 10% - wages rose by more than inflation, and of course I wouldn't mention cuts to benefits or the self-employed. Which is pretty much the way the government has presented things!
Tim: Excellent work. A career as a spin doctor awaits!
I think that career would be more suited to Andy Verity perhaps. 

More or Less also included a detailed, entertaining, fair and exemplary analysis of the stats behind Labour's 50p top tax rate proposal - far better than anything Newsnight has done on the subject. If you haven't heard it, please give it a go (and if you don't like Ed Balls you'll be delighted to hear him described as being "wrong" about a key claim he made).

It's a shame More or Less is an irregular feature of the Radio 4 landscape, with only 15 editions last year. Newnight is usually on five nights a week nearly every week and yet isn't half as informative. (By my calculations, Newsnight is only 23.2% as informative as More or Less!) 

The solution is simple then: Scrap Newsnight and permanently replace it with More or Less.

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