Fraser Nelson’s porkies. AKA: Can we have an informed debate about the economy, please?

by Stephen Tall on January 4, 2015

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, is at it again. I’ve noted before his tendency to use raw figures — ignoring, say, the impact of inflation or population growth — to make specious claims.

First, Fraser attacked the Conservatives for their New Year poster, taking exception (along with a chunk of the press) for its claim that the deficit has halved under the Coalition.

The poster is correct; Fraser and his journo colleagues are wrong. To quote the OBR (as Fraser was later forced to do), “relative to GDP, the budget deficit has been halved to date” — though the reasons don’t exactly redound to the credit of the Government, as Jonathan Portes acerbically points out here.

But Fraser is nothing if not even-handed. Today he attacks Labour for its poster-claim that spending is heading back to the levels of the 1930s.

labour poster 2015

Here’s Fraser’s complaint:

… the Treasury doesn’t even have figures that go back to the 1930s. Its data starts in 1955-56 where state spending was, in today’s money, £158 billion. It is now £737 billion, almost five times higher that it was in the mid-50s, let alone the 1930s.

Because, as Fraser and everyone else knows, things cost exactly the same now as they did back then, and the UK’s population is still 40 million. Yes?

I’ll try an analogy, to see if it helps Fraser along…. Say it’s 2005 and you’re paid £50,000 a year and have minimal outgoings beyond the mortgage. But over the next decade, you have three kids. And then your parents start to need help with their round-the-clock care costs. Then let’s say that, after those 10 years, your salary stands at £53,000. According to the Fraser world-view, you have nothing to worry about: you earn £3,000 more now than you did in 2005. That’s it, end of story. You’re better off. The raw figures prove it.

Does it matter that a magazine editor so persistently gets hold of the wrong end of the economic stick and waves it about? Perhaps not so much. But — as I wrote here last July — we’re approaching an election in which all the main parties are avoiding discussing the crunchy spending decisions to come.

The Fraser Nelson school of economic reporting seeks to impress with its use of graphs and figures. But we need journalism that informs, not distracts, from the big decisions which await us.

PS: And yes, that means you, too Channel 4 News. Why the heck would you think it matters for even a mili-second whether the Conservatives’ poster art-work originated in Germany? Leave that quirky, sideways-look stuff to Buzzfeed, please.