Sunday, February 23, 2014

Truth, Perception and Politics

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)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

How did I get here?

I was on the train today, crossing the Thames, and I just started to smile. A proper, beaming smile. But wind back a bit. An awful lot has changed since I last blogged, back exactly two months ago (so much for trying to be a regular blogger!).

When I was younger, I had lots of dream jobs. I wanted to be a farmer who also owned a windmill, a fireman, a spy, and a mole. And I mean the little blind creature, don't ask... Then I decided I was going to be an IT consultant. But through GCSE, A-Level and Uni I never really knew what I wanted to do, which makes looking for jobs really difficult.

Then I came across the work of the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT), a group working on behalf of the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches, doing research and advocacy work on all kinds of issues; from poverty and housing to the arms trade and international rights. They are amazing people, and I thought how cool it would be to work for them.

I've also never felt particularly tied to a certain place. I've never got homesick as far as I can remember. Yes, my home town will always have a place in my heart, but if you know it, then it's not really that great. I settle very quickly. I don't mind moving on. Saying goodbye can be hard, and packing is one of the worst things in the world, but I don't seem to let my roots dig in too deep. But I have always thought it would be cool to live in London. A busy city full of culture and famous landmarks, but also of hidden secrets and lots of exploring. Weirdly familiar yet with so much to discover.

Then, in December, I saw an advert for a six month internship, in London, with JPIT. The closest I had to a dream job, in the closest I had to my dream city. The long and the short of it is that I got the job, and a good friend offered me his spare room, so I didn't have to worry about finding anywhere to live. It really feels like God has let everything slot into place, brought me where I need to be for now.

And so, today, as the train rumbled over the river, it struck me again how great God is, how lucky I am, and how exciting the next six months are going to be.