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Cameron’s speech fails the poverty fact-check

9:45 am - November 12th 2009

by Sunder Katwala    

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Stuart White, Next Left blogger and director of the Public Policy Unit at Oxford University, had previously offered readers a fair and factual critique of the successes and failures of Labour’s record of poverty and inequality, scrutinising David Cameron’s claims that the Conservatives should be considered the party of the poor.

Now Channel 4 news have also done their own detailed fact-check on David Cameron’s claim about Labour’s record on poverty and inequality that

Poverty and inequality have got worse, despite Labour’s massive expansion of the state.”

On a scale of 0-5, where 5 means “absolutely no basis in fact”, Cameron’s speech scores a 4 on poverty, at the top end of the scale which suggests “misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language”.

That is because he claims that poverty has risen under Labour when any reasonable account would report that poverty has fallen.

Fact check find that his inequality claim stands up better – scoring him at 2 out of 5.

That may seem fair given that the Gini coefficient measure of inequality has risen slightly, as Labour’s efforts to ‘run up the down escalator’ slowed down sharp rises in inequality but did not reverse them.

However, the rise in the Gini is caused by runaway inequality in the top 1% and particularly the top 0.2% – while the 90:10 gap between those 10% from the top and 10% from the bottom has narrowed under Labour.

And David Cameron’s speech offered a (somewhat Blairite) critique in arguing that this is not the inequality that matters.

That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom. Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term.

And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

Labour can stake a reasonable claim to have reduced inequality between the bottom and the middle, which is the inequality which Cameron thinks matters.

In challenging that, David Cameron does also rely on some statistics about severe poverty which Channel 4 note “are not thought to be reliable another to get the quality stamp of being published as official statistics”.

C4 Fact Check here.

A more detailed rebuttal also by James Graham: David Cameron’s vision of a McSociety

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments

Well, what this seems to show is that well-known left wing news organisation Channel 4 news believes in a left-wing definition of poverty.

I’m shocked.


No. The problem is not that Cameron and his party rejects the definition of poverty which his critics are using, but rather that Cameron misreports the facts, based on an shared definition which all of the major parties accept.

The Conservative Party’s official position and policy is that it now agrees with understanding poverty in relative terms, and that it accepts 60% of median income as an important central official benchmark of poverty. The use of 40% of median income for severe poverty is argued, by the Conservatives, to be a supplementary indicator, not a replacement of it.

There may be other Conservatives who reject the very idea of relative poverty, or reject the relevance of the main measure used not just in the UK but in official, policy, academic and international comparative analysis, but that is no longer the official policy of the party or the leadership.

So it would be a different type of critique if Cameron took the official Tory line which Social Security Secretary John Moores set out in 1988 – “we have now abolished poverty in Britain” – and the argument was that others did not agree about that definition of poverty.

Well, it would have helped if C4 had actually got their definitions right.

Absolute poverty is defined as 50% (not 60%) of median pegged at one moment in time and upgraded for inflation.

Tim @ 3: a pretty irrelevant point.

As Sunder points out, the Conservatives accept the standard relative poverty measure while seeking to supplement this with a further relative measure (40% of median income, here and now). The claim that poverty has increased under Labour is false (for most social groups) by the standard measure which the Conservatives accept; and the IFS have repeatedly issued warnings about the relability and interpretation of the data behind the proposed supplementary measure (which has increased).

So a C4 typo concerning the government’s proposed measure of absolute poverty is really neither here nor there so far as their basic assessment of Cameron’s claims is concerned.

“Tim @ 3: a pretty irrelevant point”

Sure, I’m just enjoying the factcheckers falling afoul of Muphry’s Law that’s all.

It’s simple snark, not a defence of Davind Bleedin’ Cameron.

5 – Hurrah, a post invoking Muphry’s Law that itself contains a spelling or grammatical error.

This thing is self-perpettuating…

Well, of course, for it is indeed true….

So just to be clear, the best the Tories have in defence of D-Cam’s fiction is the silly idea of left-wing and right-wing definitions of poverty (I’m sure that is really useful for those actually living in poverty) and using Muphry’s Law to dis-credit the entire article?


Who’s the Tory around here? I’m in UKIP.

Our anti-poverty measure is that the best thing we can do for the low paid is stop bloody taxing them. Raise the personal allowance to full time minimum wage (ish-ish £12k a year) and once we’ve done that, then let’s look at what else we need to do.

Why on earth do you think I was trying (or even desireing) to defend Cammo?


You’re a bit sensitive duck, wasn’t talking to you.

To me then? But I wasn’t talking about the article at all, only snarking at Tim W.

Well that’s grand Tonga Tim!

At least that’s all cleared up.

Always happy to assist with basic reading comprehension…

You seem confused Tonga Tim that you’ve actually been any assistance in basic reading comprehension, clearly your mind, addled with sherry, has at last given way.

And you would have to wonder Tonga Tim why you’d be snarking, as you so delightfully put it, in a thread about your mighty leader in the first place?

Any chance you were taking part in a bit of LOOK OVER THERE action?

Of course not…

14 – nope. I just like Muphry’s Law.

I’m glad but perhaps you should save that for elsewhere, perhaps your own blog?

16 – I’m assuming that isn’t actually you Daniel? In any event, slightly over the top I think.

I was assuming that the bizarre and offensive ranting above wasn’t from you, as it seemed to be entirely unprompted and at odds with the rest of the thread. I thought someone was mimicking you again, as has happened before.

I’m staggered that you think it acceptable to comment like that. I’d also be staggered if this site leaves your comments to stand.

Indeed, anyone with moderating powers, could you please delete from Comment 16 onwards and the person impersonating me, could you please just email me and share whatever your issue is with me rather than being a dick over here thanks?

First off Kojak, comment 16 isn’t me, it’s some odd stalker who likes to pretend they’re me because…well, no idea really.

Second, the quote isn’t in relation to Poles Apart, it was from the BBC in relation to another show of ours, although why you’re going and looking such things up I’m not so sure. Each to their own but don’t make me suspicious that the impersonator is you, as I’ll ask Sunny for the IP details.

Best just to calm down Kojak for now.

I’ve deleted the comments from whoever was impersonating Daniel and logged the ip address.

Thank you Don, I really appreciate that and may I have the IP details please or pass them to Sunny to pass to me who has my personal email, for reference and I am keeping something of a file!

’14 – nope. I just like Muphry’s Law.’

I like Nesbitt’s moustache. Worthy of Jason King.

Blimey, how odd!

DHG re: Comment 16,

“although why you’re going and looking such things up I’m not so sure.”

Because you’ve been mentioning it for a number of months now and a while back you suggested people here come and see the show.

The question you should really ask is, how come someone gave such a good impersonation of you merely by being so abusive?

Apart from that – good luck to you for having the enthusiasm to put on a show.

(By the way are you going to see the Nottingham Contemporary? A few months ago, when up visiting friends, I had a peek and was quite intrigued. It was far from open but looked intersting)



It’s a little odd because I’ve not been mentioning it for a couple of months at all but a while back I did suggest people come and see it and you’ll have to forgive me in the current climate but I am rather suspicious of your motives.

As for the question you ask, the Internet and the written word upon is a pretty base and flat form, rather easy to impersonate anyone actually, including you.

And putting on shows is what I do.

Also, I don’t live in Notts anymore and haven’t done for some 5 years so haven’t seen the new space.

DHG re: Comment 26,

I doubt whether my motives are any different to the other people here – but I can understand your reservations.

One way to avoid impersonators is for the host to give everyone a number and to display it along with the persons name. But, apart from being a bore and treating people like kiddies, it could change the nature of the site and require too much monitoring to make it viable.

Wishing you well with your shows.


Kojak, you will have to forgive my reservations when a lot of sock puppets and trolls are about, I do think that it is a wee bit too easy at Lib Con to impersonate others but understand some methods can cut down on the discussion.

Anyway, thanks for your good wishes and apologies for my distrust.

Hi Sunder,

I doubt that many in the electorate will be moved by arcane debates about Gini coefficients and the politically correct definition of poverty. For a start, many are sceptical about both the government and statistics. Combine the two and the result is apt to be even less credible than either separately.

For all the space given to Cameron’s speech in parts of the media, I wasn’t impressed. IMO the text doesn’t survive even the most basic academic tests for substance over vacuous rhetoric spun to make cuts in income support programmes and the public services seem more palatable.

Has any country achieved Cameron’s vision of “the Big Society”, if so where and if not why not?

Cameron thinks government and the state have become too big but is it possible for “society” – whatever that is – to become “too big” and how could we tell? Can a country have more than one Big Society or isn’t that allowed?

Was there ever a time in Britain’s history when “society” was bigger, if so when?

However, the rise in the Gini is caused by runaway inequality in the top 1% and particularly the top 0.2% – while the 90:10 gap between those 10% from the top and 10% from the bottom has narrowed under Labour.

By your favoured crierion, if 1% of the population had everything and the other 99% had nothing, Britain would be a completely equal society.

I submit that this is nonsense.

31. Stuart White

Philip @ 30: I don’t think Sunder is suggesting that we ignore what happens in the top 1% or that we just drop the Gini coefficient. He’s pointing out that by itself the Gini coefficient can give a potentially misleading sense of the full picture because it can rise even when inequality falls across the bulk of the distribution. To get a full picture it helps to complement the Gini by other measures like the 90:10 ratio.


I think Sunder was just fishing around for a statistic, any statistic, that made his case.

The whole point of Gini is that it compares *all* percentiles, not just two.

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