Home / Blog / The £2k debate. Neither factual truth nor lie. Possibly rational truth. Certainly opinion. Probably misleading.

The £2k debate. Neither factual truth nor lie. Possibly rational truth. Certainly opinion. Probably misleading.

Rae Burdon
June 12th 2024

Today may be the perfect day to write about the Tory party claim that a Labour government will add £2k to tax bills. Because today sees the Labour party claim that ‘the Tories will cost you £4,800 more on your mortgage’ and it also sees publication of the National Centre for Social Research report finding record numbers of voters saying they “almost never” trust politicians to tell the truth when in a tight corner. Additionally, we’re told that just 9% of people, an all-time low, ‘generally trust politicians to tell the truth’ (the latter stat is from IPSOS 2023).

What you might conclude or believe as a result of the above depends, of course, on who you are, how you vote and whether you opt for, or are inclined to, confirmational bias, motivated reasoning, sceptical analysis, dispassionate deconstruction, conspiracy theory, downright prejudice or, probably for many, an apathy attack.

To most voters, election campaigning is unwelcome noise made by people they don’t trust, so one might reasonably conclude that it doesn’t really matter whether the £2k claim, or the £4.8k version, is ‘true’ and anyway its truth can’t be judged or measured as it’s a claim about a third party’s planned behaviour. It’s just another shot in the political fusillade that we must endure until July 4th. And yet, and yet….

First, while noise might be unwelcome, that doesn’t mean it isn’t heard, like motorbikes in the country at weekends. Some recent polling found ‘tax has become the main point of hesitation among Labour waverers – suggesting the Tories are having some success on messaging’ (from Politico/ J L Partners June 10).

Second, even a relatively cursory and cynical review of political advertising over the past few decades must acknowledge its latent power: somehow, those ‘bombshells,’ ‘double whammies,’ big red buses and now piggybanks shook some trees, even if they were only in the forests of the political parties who promulgated them. Those parties become galvanised because they can begin to feel change, the political wind a bit less firm against, media commentary beginning to turn, the opposition perceived to be more on the back foot. So, more fists are banged on more doors, more leaflets shoved through more letterboxes, more ads published, more momentum gained.

The advertising does indeed matter. Our issue at Reform Political Advertising is first that we realise that (many, especially most media commentators, don’t) and second that far too much of political advertising carries factually inaccurate claims. See our reviews for evidence. We regard it as extraordinary and clearly wrong that advertising that influences a choice of soap must observe at least four sets of regulations while advertising for a choice of government can be as dirty as it likes and often is.

We should be clear, however, that the regulations that apply to the commercial sector are unsuited to the political arena and we should be equally clear that we do not seek any regulation of anything other than factual claims and their presentation; what the government describe as policy statements or political opinion should of course remain unregulated, except in as much as the Representation of the People Act, PPERA and the Elections Act 2022 cover the elements they cover, inadequately in the case of the latter.

So, does the £2k claim pass muster? By way of context, when we review an ad, we often take off branding before its dissection, so that reputation in communication doesn’t bias us. We don’t know how each other votes, if at all, and we don’t care. We have no opinion on pure political opinion or policy. We do think about voters and what they might feel as that’s how most advertising people are brought up. The voter is our boss and that voter, or nine out of ten of them, think that accuracy of factual claims in advertising should be a legal requirement (YouGov 2019).

We published a draft ad code, shown below, late last year and written from the point of view of potential signatories (a number of political leaders, including Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, recently signed the code in the context of mayoral elections):

In our advertising we will:

• Make every effort not to mislead voters
• Ensure that factual claims are accurate
• Hold relevant, reliable evidence for claims
• Acknowledge any mistake & issue correction
• Inform audiences when using generative AI

Further context is that we tend to take our review cue from the ASA, the UK’s reputable and widely respected advertising regulator for the commercial sector (the ASA ‘retired hurt’ from regulating electoral advertising in 1999). Much of their work (some 70% of complaints) is that of dealing with misleading claims in advertising: rule 3.1 of the CAP Code states ‘Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.’ When assessing whether an ad is likely to mislead, the ASA ‘will consider how the average consumer will interpret the ad, and whether it is likely to cause them to take a transactional decision that they otherwise would not have taken.’

The ‘transactional decision’ measure constitutes a relatively high bar and one based in law (the Consumer Protection Regulations 2008). In a consumer goods or services context, the application of the measure is not unreasonable. Promotional activity in particular can create ‘transactional decisions’ and, broadly speaking, the relationship between consumers and ‘everyday’ brands is generally not one of great depth and clearly not comparable to their feelings towards and exchanges with political parties. A vote is clearly not an item on the weekly shopping list.

For the reasons we have outlined above, we don’t transfer the ‘transactional decision’ measure into our assessment processes. In an election context, ‘causing them to take a transactional decision they would otherwise not have taken’ would translate to a change of voting behaviour. While we have earlier acknowledged the power of political advertising, we’re not convinced that a single ad in the course of a general election campaign is likely to cause an undecided voter suddenly to decide. He or she will be weighing pros and cons from many different directions and other – often personal and direct – influences, conventions and histories from elsewhere. Those kinds of considerations don’t apply to most consumer goods – electoral advertising may be influential but not to the same degree as many of the sectors subject to the ASA’s cold eye.

So, we set our own bar a little lower, requiring that advertising inter alia should not mislead (see above for our draft code). We deploy the following definition of misleading: to lead in a wrong direction or into a mistaken impression or belief, often by deliberate deceit. Thus, the claim on the infamous Brexit bus ‘We send the EU £350m a week’ is somewhat obviously misleading as it is factually inaccurate and ‘leads in a wrong direction’. On the other hand, and to complete the claims circle begun earlier., ‘Take back control’ is an idea or opinion or injunction based on a political belief and therefore rightly untouchable.

Enough context. When reviewing the Conservative Party £2k claim in the form that we saw it (on Tik Tok here), we observed the following and reached the subsequent conclusions:

• The advertising sets out the process by which the advertiser reached the figure of £2k and which of and what proportion of the separate elements that made up the figure were Treasury sourced or otherwise (this issue had been the subject of controversy in earlier non-advertising iterations of the claim)
• The central claim is that ‘Labour’s tax rises will cost every working family £2,094’. Critically, the voiceover states that the cost is ‘over the next four years.’ The video goes on to explain that calculations are based on ’27 Labour commitments’ made by senior figures and in Labour documents and ‘overwhelming based on official treasury figures’
• The video identifies a ‘funding gap’ of £38.5bn ‘, i.e. that between the spending plans and stated ‘funding’, again ‘over the next four years.’ The calculation of £2,094 is reached by dividing the number of working households into the funding gap.
• We did not examine, for reasons of resource, each of the individual commitments or the basis on which those commitments had been translated into hard cash, neither did we review the (existing) funding claims. We are more concerned with the ‘final’ headline claim of £2,094.

Based on the above, we conclude:

• The advertising is misleading, not necessarily in the claim itself but in the manner of the claim, an issue to which we will return. We have set out above the limitations of individual advertising in this election context and we don’t expect that this example will cause voter switch or the undecided to decide, but we do believe that, for some, especially disillusioned Conservative voters who may be considering a return to Labour, it may provide pause for thought.
• The central claim is not without reasonable substantiation and in our view that substantiation falls within the grounds of political capability and context. In other words, these numbers would not reasonably be perceived as plucked out of the air; they have some basis in numerical workings if not in ‘reality’ or necessarily truth. We regard this kind of numbers massaging as being fair in political love and war, where straightforward inaccuracies (per the Brexit bus) are a different matter;
• The £2,094 figure is not sufficiently clearly explained as being a total spread over or across four years. The expression ‘over the next four years’ could be taken to mean that the £2k figure applies in each of those years, so we are suspicious of this term and its potential for deceit as it arguably contributes to the notion, which most would assume, that the £2k figure is an annual cost. This view (that £2k would be perceived as an annual cost) is per the stats authority conclusion, incidentally.
At the time of writing, there has been some media reaction to the Labour Party claim that ‘the Tories will cost you £4,800 more on your mortgage.’ A number of titles report Full Fact’s view that the claim is ‘very speculative’ and based on ‘multiple assumptions.’ The Full Fact line on the Conservative Party £2k claim was similar: ‘this figure is unreliable and based on a number of questionable assumptions. ‘

It’s little wonder political campaigners aren’t trusted. And won’t be, until there’s some sensible regulation in place.

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