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There is more than enough room in politics for conjecture, opinion and division, but when it comes to facts politicians, members of the media and the public simply ignore them. A new survey from the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London found that when it came to identifying teen pregnancy, benefit fraud and immigration the British public were alarmingly misinformed.
It was estimated by those surveyed that £24 out of every £100 was claimed fraudulently, when actually 70 pence is. As well as that the same people believed Britain was made up of 31% of immigrants and not the correct 11%. And perhaps most startling of all, 15% of girls under 16 were thought to become pregnant in Britain each year when the figure is actually 0.6%. These inaccuracies are not just casual misunderstandings but deeply damaging exaggerations perpetuated by a shamelessly partisan media with a clear agenda and politicians that have become toothless through the fear of bad press.
A neglectful and bigoted media has produced an ill-informed and angry public in many sections of the country, where benefit scroungers and immigrants are seen as the source of Britain’s decline. In May this year, the Daily Express splashed on their front cover ‘Foreigners in £70M NHS Rip-off’, exposing how the NHS has been hijacked by Johnny-foreigner who just wants a quick body MOT before nipping back to his life of luxury in their home country. The attention-seeking headline failed, however, to mention that the figure came from the last ten years of NHS spending, representing roughly 0.00875% of the NHS’s expenditure. When considering that the Express claims to have a readership of 1,192,000 people, can it be a surprise that the British public seem to be so ludicrously out of touch with reality?
This may also explain why all of the major party leaders have been so keen to dance to the beat of UKIP and the Daily Mail when it comes to immigration, diversity and race. Since the end of the last election Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have been tripping over themselves to lament immigration, so much so that one suspects that any MP who dare speak of the virtues of migration to Britain will have been whipped into a cupboard gagged with the flag of the European Union and sent away from Westminster sharpish to work harder on helping their constituency gain planning permission to build a new patio in their back garden. The coalition government has attempted to implement a populist and ineffectual immigration cap to limit the amount of migrants to a certain number each year, while Ed Miliband, son of migrants, has taken various opportunities to say that Labour “got it wrong” by actively encouraging immigration into Britain while in office.
These comments prove carelessly ignorant of facts as the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Fiscal Sustainability Report, published in July, told us that immigration has provided a net gain for the British economy in the last ten years and without any of it the Debt-GDP Ratio would be 40% higher than it is currently. However, this doesn’t prove a very catchy headline and nor does it suit the ideals of some of the most widely read newspapers in the country that constantly print scare-mongering stories on immigration. Facts are being sacrificed largely at the expense of the dogma of trashy tabloids and their political prejudice.
The late Michael Foot once said that “the fear of what the public will think prevents the public from thinking at all”. It’s a lovely little phrase that sums up why he was probably too decent to be a political party leader. Foot, it is said, led the Labour party to near extinction with his manifesto in 1983 which challenged the principles and beliefs of Britain at the time. Perhaps this is why party leaders have seldom sought to challenge public opinion since then, no matter how ill-informed or prejudicial it has become. However, I am quite sure a happy medium can be found between pledging to abolish the House of Lords and perpetuating the demonization of migrants or benefit claimants, some of whom can be the poorest and most exploited people in Britain.
Very few newspapers, it would seem, are going to stand up for the worst affected in society and it would appear that too many people seem content with misinformation, so something’s got to change. Politicians are perhaps best placed to make this change and it all comes down to an age-old debate about whether politicians should follow or lead public opinion. It is clear though that if politicians aren’t going to lead public opinion then fact and truth becomes victim to prejudice and dishonesty. It must be dispiriting shouting against a consensus backed by party leaders and powerful newspaper magnates, but someone’s got to do it and with the help of a little moral courage and self-belief it can be done. To not do so would be an abuse of office and a failure to educate and help the very people who elected them. The public are wrong and politicians need to say so.