Ten facts the parties got wrong on the campaign trail

7th May 2010

How will the 2010 election be remembered? It began as the internet election, morphed into the television election, then simply ended up as the inconclusive election.

In some respects however, this year's campaign could be remembered as the fact-check election.

Following where the US led, the past months have seen our politicians' claims checked and double checked here at Full Fact, and also at the Guardian, Times and BBC, not to mention Channel Four's long-running fact check blog. 

Such work was not only limited to media outlets. Organisations like the Institute for Fiscal Studies kept all those cuts claims in check.

While an array of issues have been tackled, certain themes cropped up time and again along the road.

On immigration, all three parties made competing claims over just how many people were coming to the UK from the EU.

On crime statistics, Labour and the Tories squared up to each other over competing sets of figures.

On spending cuts, all manner of claims were made about the cost of the cuts and commitment set out by each party — some more accurate than others.

As the country looks ahead to the formation of the next Government, here is Full Fact's round up of the contentious claims revealed by the some of the top fact-checkers.

Violent Crime

Perhaps the longest running statistical spat of the election campaign was the battle between Chris Grayling and Alan Johnson over violent crime figures.

Hostilities began when the Tories claimed violent crime had gone up significantly under Labour.  The figures were even used in Conservative campaign literature. In subsequent fact-checks it emerged that the statistics were not directly comparable, due to changes in recording methods in 2002.

Undeterred, the Tories tasked the House of Commons library with calculating a comparable set of figures. These showed a 44 per cent rise in crime.

The Government unsurprisingly refused to recognise such figures, a move apparently endorsed by the head of the UK Statistics Authority who stated the British Crime Survey (BCS) was the best means of assessing long term crime trends. The BCS, as Alan Johnson was quick to point, showed a fall in violent crime. Officially at least, it seemed the Government was correct.

Immigration

The claims of the press as well as the politicians came under scrutiny in the run up to the election. A row broke out when the Daily Mail splashed on immigration statistics originally published by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson.

The headline figure was that of all new jobs created since 1997, 98.5 per cent had gone to immigrants.

Such an eye-catching figure prompted scrutiny. The Left Foot Forward blog checked out the figures, pointing out that foreign born, still included people of British nationality. Likewise the figure did not include those over 65s, on which measure the percentage of jobs held by foreign born workers was 72 per cent.

The Office of National Statistics clarified that neither nationality or country of birth give a complete picture of how many jobs went to immigrants.

So, as the BBC's Reality Check argued, the objective conclusion was that the bulk of jobs created since 1997 had gone to people not born in the UK, regardless of nationality or length of time spent living in the UK.

Trident True?

With only Labour and the Conservatives in favour of a like for like replacement for Trident, a number of claims were bandied about on the nuclear deterrent, most notably on cost.

When pressed on his party's proposals for spending cuts, SNP leader Alex Salmond repeatedly pointed to the £100 billion he said could be saved by scrapping the submarines.

The figure was also cited by Nick Clegg during the leaders debates.

However, it emerged that this figure was simply an estimate for the total running cost of the replacement programme over the lifetime of the project, leaving much lower potential savings available to the next government. 

However when accepting this point on Sunday, Alex Salmond pointed out the savings of £2 billion a year should not be dismissed lightly.

The problem for Nick Clegg was, as Channel Four's Fact Check pointed out, that seeking an alternative to Trident would cost money further eating into the savings he could claim.

Cameron's bad memory or maths

It was not just in the use of statistics, where politicians were sometimes a little bit elastic with the truth.  The anecdotes used to back up their arguments were also worth keeping an eye on.

Perhaps the most amusing example was David Cameron's account of a meeting with a "40 year old black man" a who Mr Cameron said, had come to the country aged six and been in the navy for 30 years.

Viewers didn't need their calculators to work out, this would have seen the man in question join the navy at ten.

As it turned out the man in question, Neal Forde, 51, only served in the navy for six years.
               
Cancer care


Another of David Cameron's statements in the first leaders debate was questioned when he claimed cancer survival rates for the UK were lower than Bulgaria.

Statistically the claim checked out, as the Guardian's Reality Check blog suggested.

However the figures did not tell the full story. Concerns were raised about how fair the comparison was in several articles in The Lancet, and indeed the author of the original research admitted the condition in Britain was more favourable than the original figures suggested.

The credibility of the comparison took a further hit when Full fact uncovered a pre election warning from Cancer Research UK against politicians using the figure.

Migrant Cap

The debate over the effect of the Tories' proposed cap on non-EU migrants led to questions being asked of both Conservative and Lib Dem figures.

First Nick Clegg, seemed to have got it wrong when he claimed in the leaders' debate that 80 per cent of migrants to the UK came from outside the EU. As Full Fact showed on the night, the ONS figures did not back him up.

However, it emerged that while Mr Clegg may have been wrong on the total number of migrants, he would have been closer to the mark if he had discussed the percentage of people actually affected by the policy.

The BBC's Mark Easton crunched the numbers and found the Tory cap would apply to one in eight, workers coming to the UK somewhat cutting away at the Conservatives arguments.

However Gordon Brown gave another set of questionable figures on EU immigration. As well as offending pensioner Gillian Duffy by calling her a bigot, Mr Brown was also shown to have misinformed her. He told her that one million Brits had gone to Europe to balance out the one million coming in, yet a number of fact checkers including us here at Full Fact showed this was not the case.

Leaflets 'Lies'

It is on the ground campaign that parties notoriously  get a bit carried away in the claims they make.

For the first time at a general election many of these claims were compiled and recorded online on the Straight Choice website, so every fanciful bar chart or misrepresentation of opponents could be scrutinised.

While often based on local disputes, the leaflet issue emerged as a national issue when Gordon Brown was challenged over misleading claims on Labour leaflets.

During the second leaders' debate David Cameron hit out at leaflets claiming the Conservatives would cut certain benefits for pensioners — claims Channel 4 had already shown to be false even before the election campaign began.

The spat took a new twist when Gordon Brown denied knowledge of such leaflets, only for the SNP to point out similarly dubious leaflets had been put out on the Prime Minister's own Kirkcaldy constituency.

Sure enough, the leaflet was found on the Straight Choice site.

Tax credits

The Conservative plan to cut tax credits for those earning over £50,000 was another bone of contention.

First off the Institute for Fiscal Studies stated that the policy was "incomplete at best and misleading at worst" given that in effect it would apply for incomes of £40,000 upwards.

Yet the potentially inaccurate portrayal by the Conservatives of their policy was more than matched by the way in which Labour presented Tory proposals.

Gordon Brown raised eyebrows when he claimed Tory plans would hit the "very poorest" families, and was accused of lying by George Osborne.

The IFS later told us that whatever spin was put on the Conservative policy, it was "highly unlikely" to have much of an effect on the poorest.

DNA

Gordon Brown was again at the scene of the crime when the Guardian looked into suspect claims about the DNA database.

Mr Brown claimed that under Conservative proposals to remove thousands of DNA records held for people arrested but not charged, would have prevented the conviction of Mark Dixie, killer of Sally Ann Bowman had they been in place.

Yet fact-checkers again triumphed, showing that because Mr Dixie also had previous convictions, his records would have been held anyway, so the case would not have been affected by the Conservatives proposals.

Help for businesses

Protecting the economic recovery was a core component of the Labour message, with the party keen to highlight the support the Government had provided through the recession.

Yet even before the starting pistol for the campaign was fired, voters were given cause to doubt some of the information they were given.

When, back in March, Gordon Brown told MPs that the Government had provided cash flow help for 300,000 businesses, Full Fact checked the claim. We found that Mr Brown had been referring to the number of applications for help under the Time to Pay scheme, not the number of businesses involved — essentially double counting.

The statistical sleight of hand was picked up on by the Sunday Times who ran the story, and ultimately led to calls by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons for an apology from Mr Brown.

Conclusion

Such contentious claims may be considered a cause for despair among campaigners for greater transparency in the political debate. Yet they should not necessarily be viewed in such lights.

The quality, extent and popularity of fact-checking work over the campaign can only in time increase the need for public figures to be responsible with the claims they make, lest those claims be exposed for being false.

As we move into the next Parliament, the election experience gives plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Patrick Casey