Facts not Fertiliser – Can our Elections be won or lost on ‘Good’ data?

As we inch nearer to the Scottish Independence vote, the contest seems to have become increasingly acrimonious. Both camps have cast doubts on the others ability to crunch the economic numbers, with some accusations of deliberate use of dodgy stats. It’s a fairly unedifying spectacle, but can it be avoided, or is this just politics? More importantly, would we rather see a campaign based on different individual politicians best guess about what works or doesn’t? Or would we rather see an election campaign grounded in evidence for which policies work and which do not?

With party conference season on the horizon and the general election just around the corner, the hope of course is for a robust and consistent use of information over the coming months. So what are the chances?

Usually there’s not much than can be done to ensure that up to date facts are used in the election debates, but this time around there’s an important opportunity to have the right facts to hand when we need them. The New Policy Institute has called for the government to release its Household Below Average Income (HBAI) data set in March to ensure the most up to date, relevant stats are available – here’s why this request is so important…

Each year the government releases HBAI, a dataset which includes the most important data on poverty and inequality. We use the Gini coefficient (a way of measuring inequality) from HBAI for our main figure for determining whether inequality has gone up or down. For the last few years HBAI has been released in May or June of the year after the figures are looking at (this June figures for 2012-13 were released) but before 2009 HBAI was released in March. If data for 2013-14 was released in March next year then we would have up to date information on how government policies have affected inequality.

In 2013-14 major welfare reforms were introduced, the personal tax allowance rose by £1,335 and the top rate of income tax was reduced from 50% to 45%.  These changes are all politically contentious and could have a noticeable effect on inequality. At the same time as these changes in policy the wider economy has also continued changing with an increasing proportion of the population in work but with average real wages failing to rise. At this point we don’t know what all of these changes combined means for the overall picture of inequality, but if HBAI were published in March we would know in time to inform the election debate.

As inequality moves up the political agenda it’s important that we’re able to sort the fact from the fertiliser and in order to do that we need the best stats available when they are most relevant. It would be a missed opportunity for HBAI to be published just after the election and for the election to only be based on rhetoric and fantasy rather than the cold hard facts. That’s why we support the New Policy Institute’s call for the Households Below Average Income(HBAI) to be published earlier next year, and encourage the DWP to do what’s necessary to ensure a fact based election.