Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 16 October 2009

I've been FactChecked!

Channel 4 News' fact-checking department did a piece yesterday which analyses my safe seats and expenses scandal correlation work from back in May.

It has been prompted by an article that Nick Clegg wrote in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday about expenses where in the final paragraph he says:

And of course, if we’re to sort out politics fully, we need to think about the future, not just the past. Britain needs voting reform to abolish the safe seats that make MPs complacent – those in safe seats were three times as likely to be identified as having abused their expenses by The Daily Telegraph. If we want to rebuild faith in politics, there can be no half measures. Only fundamental reform will be enough

Nick Clegg's office confirmed to Channel 4 that these figures were based on my research.

A very nice lady named Alice from Channel 4 called me on Wednesday to discuss all of this and to request the source data. At the time I didn't realise that they were going to do a full article where they analyse the work in detail and essentially try to pull it apart and see how it stands up. You can find the results of their analysis here. It is worth reading the whole thing to see the points they make for and against the research.

Addressing one of the counter-arguments to the usefulness of the source data they say the following:

...How important is the minister-factor in the make-up of the Telegraph's list?

It's not the case that everyone included is a big name. Thompson told us there were a large number of MPs he hadn't heard of - and he's a self-confessed political anorak.

Phantom mortgage claimants Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, both of whom have now been banned from standing again as Labour MPs, weren't exactly big household names. Neither was Margaret Moran, she of the £22,500 dry rot bill, or Fabian Hamilton, or Stephen Crabb - all mentioned in the early Telegraph investigations.

Their verdict is:

Clegg's claim is based on some fairly detailed analysis of a big tranche of MPs which made up the Telegraph's early expenses revelations, and found those in the top quartile of safe seats were three times as likely to feature as those in the bottom quartile.

Re-doing the analysis at a later date, when the paper had covered more MPs, showed those with the biggest majorities were twice, rather than three times, as likely to feature as those with the smallest.

Clegg implies that one factor causes the other, using the finding as a basis to call for reform of the first-past-the-post system which gives MPs such differing majorities.

But doesn't necessarily stack up. A correlation between two factors does not mean that one causes the other, and it's also worth bearing in mind that top frontbenchers are more likely to have safe seats than MPs as a whole.

Still, it's an intriguing piece of research - though perhaps one that we should be careful about stating as political fact without question.

I think their conclusion is fair here although I also think it is fair for Nick Clegg to highlight this situation in articles and bring it to people's wider attention.

I am pleased to see on their scale they give Nick's claim a 2 which on their scale of 0 - 5 seems pretty good (the lower the number better).

PS: As I am currently on holiday, I may struggle to respond to any comments on this quickly.


Oranjepan said...

This is politics, after all, so anything with the potential to cause damage will naturally be held at arms length.

I think the terms should be clarified to differentiate between direct and indirect causation, to add to simple correlation, each of which require different standards and types of proof to produce different judgements.

The analysis is clearly valid, but it is only one of many factors to be taken into account.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

It was that post that made your blog comparitively famous. It was new information, not obtainable elsewhere, and especially germane to a debate that was in need of such insight as that post provided. More of the same please (and less bland stuff we could read anywhere/over-hear in the pub.! Thanks ;-) )

Niklas said...

...and it's also worth bearing in mind that top frontbenchers are more likely to have safe seats than MPs as a whole.

Try telling that to Chris Huhne with his notional majority (or rather plurality) of 530!

More seriously, the Telegraph did a pretty complete trawl - just because someone wasn't splashed on the front page doesn't mean that they weren't named. So there is no reason to think that frontbenchers were given scrutiny that backbenchers avoided.

Correlation obviously never proves causation, but the theory that MPs with safe seats are less worried about how their actions look to the public is the most reasonable one around to explain the correlation.

Mark Wadsworth said...

I heard him say that on telly last week and immediately thought of you as well.

And then I thought of Manc Ill Kid's later scatter-graph which included nearly all MPs, which sort of disproved the theory again...

Funny how Nick Clegg didn't mention that second scatter-graph.