Sunday, January 26, 2014

The psychology of welfare-bashing: Why Benefits Street isn't a fuss about nothing

This week I’ve been reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. This blog isn’t really about the book itself, but about a few interesting psychological studies I came across within its pages which I found interesting in light of the Benefits Street debacle. 

It’s now a well-known fact that the British public’s perceptions on welfare and immigration are woefully inaccurate. We’ve all heard the statistics -  surveys suggest people think around a quarter of the benefits bill is fraudulently claimed, when the actual figure is less than 1%. Pretty much the same applies to the proportion of immigrants claiming benefits. I think these studies help to illuminate why that is, and what might need to be done about it.

The first set of studies were about the impact of different types of information on our perceptions and decisions – and, I think, help to show why the Benefits Street debate is definitely not a mountain being made out of a molehill.

 “When college students who are deciding what courses to take next semester are presented with summaries of course evaluations from several hundred students that point in one direction, and a videotaped interview with a single student that points in the other direction, they are more influenced by the vivid interview than the summary judgements of hundreds. Vivid interviews with people have profound effects on judgement even when people are told, in advance of seeing the interviews, that the subjects of the interviews are atypical. Thus seeing an interview of an especially vicious (or humane) prison guard or an especially industrious (or slothful) welfare recipient shifts people’s opinions of prison guards or welfare recipients in general.”

It’s pretty obvious that vivid personal stories stick in people’s minds more than cold facts and figures – but I think this really brings home just how insidiously influential things like Benefits Street can be, and how big a challenge we face in trying to turn perceptions of welfare around. Even if we managed to get the facts about the benefits system into every school, workplace and newspaper tomorrow, Channel 4’s portrayal of the inhabitants of James Turner Street would probably still influence viewers’ opinions far more.

Much as I loved Parasite Street, which applies some of the techniques used to demonise benefits claimants to highlight the excesses of neoliberal capitalism, it’s not – and isn’t meant to be – a direct counter to negative stereotypes about people on benefits. For that, if these studies are to be believed, we need to put people face-to-face with ‘deserving’ benefit claimants to balance the negative TV coverage that’s out there. I think the ‘Who Benefits?’ initiative is a really nice idea – but we desperately need more like it, and they need to pack more of a punch.

The second study relates to the same type of informational bias, but this time it sheds some light on the role of the press, as opposed to TV:

“Researchers asked respondents to estimate the number of deaths per year that occur as a result of various types of misfortune. The researchers then compared people’s answers to actual death rates, with striking results. Respondents judged accidents of all types to cause as many deaths as diseases of all types, when in fact disease causes sixteen times more deaths than accidents. Death by homicide was thought to be as frequent as death from stroke, when in fact eleven times more people die of strokes than from homicides. In general, dramatic, vivid causes of death (accident, homicide, tornado, flood, fire) were overestimated, whereas more mundane causes of death (diabetes, asthma, stroke, tuberculosis) were underestimated.

Where did these estimates come from? The authors of the study looked at two newspapers, published on opposite sides of the US, and they counted the number of stories involving various causes of death. What they found was that the frequency of newspaper coverage and the respondents’ estimates of the frequency of deaths were almost perfectly correlated.”

Again, it’s not rocket science that people’s assumptions about the world will be influenced by the way it’s depicted in the newspapers they read – but I was certainly surprised by the sheer extent of that influence implied by this study. I don’t know if anyone’s done the same sort of analysis between people’s perceptions about the level of benefit fraud, or the number of immigrants claiming benefits, and the coverage of the tabloid press – but it would be interesting to see the results.

The Daily Mail may be the by-word for right-wing raggery, but I reckon it’s the Daily Express that is the biggest culprit here. Back when I worked in parliament, the press office used to send round the headlines of every major paper as part of their daily news update. It was a fascinating window into the pre-occupations of the British media – among other things, I discovered that the Telegraph really hates Scotland, with ‘Scotland rubbish, study finds’ appearing on their front page roughly once a week. But I digress.

The point is that I realised it was the Express, not the Mail, whose headlines were consistently, shockingly hate-filled. The Mail at least makes a pretence at being a serious paper, and its main front page story would normally bear at least some relationship to the actual news going on in the actual world. The Express, on the other hand, just peddles hate, day after day after day. Now Immigrants Are Coming to Eat Your Babies. Outrage As Gypsies Get Solid Gold Caravans. Did Teenage Mum On Benefits Kill Diana? Literally. Every. Single. Day.

This is what we’re up against – and we urgently need to get better and smarter at fighting it. It’s going to be an uphill battle, since another thing we know from the psychological evidence is that people are likely to ignore new evidence that contradicts their existing opinions – and disdain for the welfare state is becoming seriously entrenched. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that we have a historic responsibility to rehabilitate the welfare state in the minds of the public – before we lose it altogether.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The corporate lobbyists at the heart of government

The latest climbdown on the so-called ‘Gagging Bill’ is good news. But it can’t undo one of the most damaging effects of the whole sorry saga: the almost complete diversion of campaigners’ attention away from the issue of corporate lobbying, which is what the Bill was supposed to be about.

 This matters. A lot. Because even if we had been debating weedy proposals for a ‘lobbying register’ instead of the proposed new restrictions on charity campaigning, we’d have been tinkering at the edges of the problem. The biggest and most powerful corporate interests don’t need to rely on lobbying agencies to make their voices heard in the corridors of power: increasingly, they are being deliberately embedded into the policymaking process.

Before I discovered the bullshit-mine that is Michael Gove, I used to blog about this quite a lot. Here, for example, and here and here and here. For those without the time to plough through my back catalogue of ranting, a quick recap: the government has a little-known policy called ‘one-in, two-out regulation’ (previously known as ‘one-in, one-out’, before they made it even more dangerous and nonsensical than it already was). Essentially, any department that wants to introduce new regulations affecting business (or the voluntary sector) has to get rid of twice as much existing regulation.

 This is measured through the ingenious means of ‘regulatory impact assessments’, which estimate how much new regulations will cost those affected. Departments then need to find regulatory ‘savings’ worth double that cost burden if they want to go ahead. These impact assessments have to be reviewed by the Regulatory Policy Committee and the Reducing Regulation Committee before new regulations can be passed. Put this together with massive spending cuts and the net effect is that departments are making policy with both hands tied behind their backs – which, of course, is exactly the point.

When I first learned about the labyrinth of committees involved in ‘one-in, two-out’, I smirked for a while at the irony of such an elaborate bureaucracy being set up to police the reduction of bureaucracy, and thought no more about it. Then, through an accident of my previous job, I came across a guy called Alexander Ehrmann – essentially, the chief lobbyist for the Institute of Directors. And, on the IoD website, I discovered that Alexander Ehrmann was a member of the Regulatory Policy Committee.

Well. Mind. Blown. Just when I thought this policy couldn’t get any more outrageous, it now turns out that the people passing judgement on the assessments which accompany new rules are not Ministers or civil servants, as I’d naively assumed, but representatives of the regulated. Basically, this government is inviting paid corporate lobbyists into the policy making process and all but giving them a veto over new regulations.

This made me wonder who else was sitting on this little-known yet immensely influential body. So I had a look on the RPC’s website. The list of “independent experts” currently serving on the RPC certainly makes for interesting reading. Say hello to:

  • Jeremy Mayhew, a councilman of the City of London Corporation, the ancient and powerful body which effectively represents the interests of high finance (natch - their tentacles seem to extend everywhere, so it's hardly surprising to find them popping up here); 
  • Michael Gibbons, a company director with extensive interests in the energy industry (both past and present, including a current directorship at a power company and a prominent role in an industry trade body); and 
  • Professor David Parker, the government’s official historian of privatisation (who knew such a beautifully Orwellian thing existed?!). 

The eight-person committee includes just one woman, and just one representative of labour. Oh, and they happen to be the same person – Sarah Veale, Head of the Equality and Employment Rights department at the TUC. Now there’s government efficiency savings for you.

The committee has no publicly available conflicts of interest policy. When I emailed them to ask for a copy of any such policy, I was told: “We operate an internal policy which ensures that any members who have a conflict of interest on policy areas are not involved in the committee reviews of impact assessments relating to those areas.” Well, colour me reassured. How exactly this is supposed to work for people like Ehrmann, who must have an ‘interest’ in almost every regulation that crosses their desk, is not entirely clear.

But of course, that’s the point. The phrase ‘conflict of interest’ has almost no meaning under a system like this. These people are not there in spite of their corporate interests: they’re there because of them. In a Thatcherite mindset obsessed with the idea that giving business what it wants will get the economy moving, corporate connections are not ‘conflicts’ to be minimised but valuable expertise to be drawn upon. In other words, regulation is being systematically and deliberately put in the hands of the regulated.

You’ll be hearing much more about this from me over the coming weeks. But for now, I’ve got a favour to ask: if you’ve learned something from this post, if you’ve been at all shocked or dismayed by what you’ve learned, then please: share it.

We are scratching the surface of something deep and troubling here, and as far as I can tell, almost nobody seems to know about it. It’s time they did. The battle over charities’ right to campaign appears to be largely won; the battle for the soul of government urgently needs to begin.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

New year, same old Gove

At the end of my last blog, I returned, like a stuck record, to Michael Gove’s politicisation of history teaching. And, right on cue, he’s just popped up to say that anyone who thinks World War I was a senseless waste of human life is obviously a dangerous leftie and basically an enemy of the state.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Gove criticised what he called “myths” about the war and the “left-wing academics” who perpetrate them, suggesting that they reflect “an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”. It’s about one step away from ‘THE MAN WHO HATED BRITAIN’.

Even more objectionably, he then tries to claim a monopoly on respect and compassion for the people whose slaughter he’s defending – implying that these sinister red historians have cast British soldiers as “dupes”, and that by questioning this year’s centenary ‘celebrations’ they are attacking “the very idea of honouring their sacrifice”. Apparently, “These arguments are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.” Whereas of course, Gove’s arguments are thoroughly grown-up and in no way boil down to ‘What? You disagree with me? Oh my God I can’t believe you just said you hated Britain and all the soldiers!!!’

In Gove’s mind, we can only truly honour the memory of the millions dead if we convince ourselves that their deaths were in the service of some gloriously noble cause. “Even the battle of the Somme, once considered the epitome of military futility, has now been analysed in depth by the military historian William Philpott and recast as a precursor of allied victory.” Well, hooray. I’m sure my dead great-grandfather will be just thrilled. And I’m certainly grateful to Gove for making me see that all those times I felt desperately sad and angry about the way his life was cut short, I wasn’t actually ‘honouring his sacrifice’, I was succumbing to my innate left-wing tendency to denigrate Britain.

I suppose the one silver lining to all this bullshit is that it really brings the political nature of Gove’s agenda for history teaching out into the open. Although he pays lip service to the idea that history is about debate, it’s pretty clear that he really thinks it’s about propaganda. To see why, it’s worth quoting from his offending Daily Mail article at length:
“There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance.

But it is important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.

Instead, they help us to understand that, for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage…

But whatever each of us takes from these acts of remembrance and hours of debate it is always worth remembering that the freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict is a direct consequence of the bravery of men and women who fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty.”

In other words: “By all means let’s have a debate, but let’s be clear that if you’re on the wrong side of that debate, you’re almost certainly a commie with quasi-treasonable motives. Oh, and the only reason we can have the debate in the first place is because actually I’m right! So nurrrrh!”

And that’s what is so terrifying about Michael Gove. He seems to derive his intellectual opinions directly from his political prejudices and then to genuinely believe that everyone else must be doing the same, and therefore that he doesn’t have to listen to them. I’m a patriot, therefore World War I must have been justified, and anyone who says otherwise obviously hates patriotism. I hate unions, therefore the opinions of unionised teachers who oppose my reforms are obviously some kind of left-wing plot and can be safely trampled over. I think education should be about Facts and Grammar, and anyone who says otherwise is obviously a wishy-washy leftie who doesn’t want kids to achieve.

Of course, we all do this to some extent. But surely the process of education should be about controlling these tendencies, not actively cultivating them? I think my friend Cathy put her finger on it when she asked yesterday: “How can so unwilling a mind be in charge of education?”