Brownian big numbers don’t persuade anyone, so why does Labour keep announcing them

by Atul Hatwal

Today, the disconnect between Labour’s approach to political communications and the general public was on full display.

To accompany the launch of the Adonis Growth Review, the topline of Labour’s story was that it would devolve up to £30bn of central government funding to new regional partnerships of local authorities.

The model of regional co-operation that Labour is advocating has had demonstrable results in Greater Manchester, where 7 North West local authorities are working well together. The incentive of greater devolution of funds from central government would surely prompt other areas to follow Greater Manchester’s lead.

As a policy, there is much to recommend today’s announcement. Which is why the way it has been packaged for the media is so depressing.

Gordon Brown was notorious for bludgeoning audiences with lists of gargantuan numbers to demonstrate his commitment to Schools-n-Hospitals. Notorious because, while these types of big numbers have a certain resonance within the Westminster bubble, they are positively off-putting for most voters.

I’m currently conducting a series of focus groups for the day job, looking at how people understand political messages. The topic we’re looking at specifically is immigration, but the findings are applicable to most political issues.

When confronted with a statistic, particularly a Brownian big number, there is typically a two stage response: “I don’t understand your number,” swiftly followed by, “I don’t trust your number.”

Dealing with the first response is comparatively straight-forward. It’s all about context.

Abstract statistics mean very little to voters. Cash numbers in the billions or percentage growth rates lack any practical resonance with peoples’ lives.  They tend to simply fade into the white noise of politicos’ stat chat.

Much better to humanise and localise. What does the big number mean for people in their neighbourhoods? Is it more places on training schemes? More jobs? More homes? How many for a neighbourhood? What does this mean for a typical family?

For today’s Labour announcement, these are difficult questions to answer. The funds are to be devolved and spent in different ways in different parts of the country. But given Greater Manchester’s experience, there must be some illustrative figures on the practical benefits for local people of increased regional co-operation and financial devolution.

The second challenge is more difficult to overcome. Even if the Brownian big number can be broken down into something more meaningful, few will believe what’s being said.

There tend to be three dimensions to this disbelief: the politicians are lying; if there is any extra cash it will be wasted on bureaucracy; and even if some things are improved, only the undeserving will benefit.

A deep and pervading public cynicism about the motivations and efficacy of politicians is central to this view. It’s why the pox-on-all-your-houses populism of Ukip has struck a chord and more broadly has created a negative ratchet in politics: the public are more prepared to believe the worst about politicians and so give much greater credence to attacks than to positive proposals.

The result is that it is always easier to tear down opponents’ plans than champion an alternative.

However, when talking to voters about what might change their views, three options emerge to turn around, or at least mitigate, this pessimism: local success stories, independent validation and message repetition.

Success stories of where a policy has worked, with testimony from real people, are a powerful antidote to the ‘nothing will ever change’ mantra.

Validation from local and national business groups, unions and community organisations send a signal that this isn’t just a paper announcement from the politicians. Once again, testimony from local representatives of these groups about what the new policy means to them would demonstrate a real community demand.

And repetition of the key messages by this range of voices, with the non-political voices most important of all, will, over time, shift the negative consensus.

Unfortunately, by almost every measure of what might persuade the public, today’s announcement falls short.

Labour has pushed a big Brownian number – £30bn – that means nothing to most people. There is little to illustrate or quantify how this would transform a community and no sense of how this approach has made a difference to peoples’ lives in Greater Manchester.

The CBI has said some positive words as have the Chambers of Commerce, which is good, but there doesn’t seem to have been anything from local businesses, unions or community groups up and down the country welcoming the new initiative. The regional and local press do not seem to have had a specific briefing tailoring the story for their readers, and even at the launch in Leeds there were no independent local voices describing what the announcement would mean for them.

And based on Labour’s recent track record of policy announcements, this will be it. There will be little follow up, no repetition, just a speech by Ed Miliband and a short Q&A.

If anything from today’s announcement does cut through to the public, it will likely be that Labour is going to blow £30bn on increased funding for local authorities.

This isn’t fair. It’s not right. But it is what happens when a good policy is badly communicated.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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7 Responses to “Brownian big numbers don’t persuade anyone, so why does Labour keep announcing them”

  1. LB says:

    So come on Atul. Answer a simple question.

    7,100 bn owed for the state pensions, and no assets. No capital what soever. So how do you as a socialist pay for a socialist nightmare? It’s not capitalism, since there’s no capital.

  2. Frederick James says:

    Good points. Worse still, the coverage I’ve seen has been ambiguous about whether the £30m is gross or net; and I have NOWHERE seen it stated whether it’s per annum or over a 5-year parliament. I presume that means it’s the latter, in which case it’s peanuts even if it is net (which I doubt).

    For all I know, all this was made explicit in the speech but it has not reached those who do not read the text of shadow ministers’ speeches (roughly 99.95% of the electorate, I would guess, seeing as we’re on about numbers).

  3. Frederick James says:

    PS: I see from this article that it is indeed £30bn over 5 years, ie peanuts, and that there were a whole lot of other duff numbers in the mix too.

    (My million for billion typo in my previous post was a deliberate test of Atul’s thesis about gee-whizz numbers, I need hardly add… )

  4. Tafia says:

    I’m all in favour of devolving local authorities – provided responsibility os also devolved to both the authority and the authority’s voters. When one fails, which they will from time to time, it must be allowed to collapse and central government must not step in with a bail-out. All heads of departments must be held fiscally responsible and fired (not paid off – fired, out on their arse), and all councillors must immediately stand down and never be allowed to stand again and a new council elected from fresh candidates.

    The only way this will work is if failure is allowed and people are held directly responsible for that failure, including the voters.

  5. Madasafish says:

    Tafia’s point about responsibility is fair but even Mrs Thatcher did not let Liverpool go bust.. as it would have done had Militant had their spending ways.

    Ain’t going to happen..

  6. Tafia says:

    Madasafish says:Tafia’s point about responsibility is fair but even Mrs Thatcher did not let Liverpool go bust.. as it would have done had Militant had their spending ways.

    Ain’t going to happen..

    In which case it will degenerate very quickly into an extremely expensive pythonesque farce.

  7. Matt Wardman says:

    I like Tafia idea too. But I question whether in the UK that would ever be done.

    And I love the idea of Brownian big numbers – random and pulled out of a hat.

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