Phil Taylor: In its bid for bleakness, Labour’s broadcast is both glib and deceptive

Setting flimsy evidence and distorted statistics to a depressing soundtrack does nothing for their credibility.

Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist in Ealing.

In their latest party political broadcast Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has taken the idea of shroud waving to a new level, trying to pin the deaths of thousands of citizens on the government.

But the numbers it uses are misleading in one case and downright bogus in the other.

The “hard-hitting” film is the third to be made by filmmaker and Corbyn-booster Simon Baker. His first two, “Our Town” and its follow-up “Our Country”, were well-produced and hit emotional buttons expertly. This time Baker is going for the righteous indignation button, and is jabbing it as hard as he can.

The characters you see in the broadcast are not patients, doctors, and nurses in the NHS. They are actors. Many of the factual captions displayed on funereal black backgrounds alongside the images are fictitious too.

Teenage suicides have nearly doubled since 2010

The ugliest part of this is the way Labour is talking up the teenage suicide rate. The UK has one of the lowest suicide rates in Europe. At seven per 100,000 in 2015 it is the fourth-lowest out of 28 EU countries, and only two-thirds the EU average.

UK suicide is at historic lows, with 2017 being the best year in the current data series for male suicide. In its latest report the Office for National Statistics (ONS) did not mention teenage suicide as being of particular note.

These deaths are terrible, but thankfully they are rare: 155 young people in the 15-19 age group took their own lives in England in 2017 (the latest year for which definitive statistics are available). This age group are less likely to kill themselves than any other, older age group.

Labour is picking its data very cynically: 2010 was the best year ever for suicide in this age group in England at 3.2 deaths per 100,000 population – so every other year in the time series is worse.

If you want to call calendar 1998 to 2010 the product of New Labour and 2011 to 2017 that of the Coalition and the Conservatives then the average teenage suicide rate under New Labour was 4.30 per 100,000 of population and it was 4.33 in the later period.

Teenage suicide, as sad as it is, is thankfully a relatively small phenomenon and one that has changed little over the 36 years for which we have readily comparable data. Making it into a political weapon and attaching a sound track to it is, in my view, pretty disgusting.

Health and social care spending cuts have been linked to 120,000 excess deaths in England

The most eye popping claim that Labour tries to nail on is that “austerity” is responsible for 120,000 excess deaths. This claim is based on a lightweight academic paper printed in the British Medical Journal in 2017. The first place to look for evidence of how flimsy the work is is the study itself which notes:

“A limitation was that our study was observational and retrospective, thereby our findings likely capture association rather than causation.”

At the time this was published in November 2017 academics were pretty scathing. For instance, Dr Richard Fordham, Senior Lecturer in Health Economics at the University of East Anglia, said:

“…longitudinal studies are fraught with difficulties in proving causality and despite the best statistical efforts of the authors, one should treat their conclusions with some caution.”

And Prof. Martin Roland, Emeritus Professor of Health Services Research at the University of Cambridge, said:

“…the authors overstate the certainty of this link to funding and are highly speculative about the money needed to ‘save lives’ in future.”

For the first time since World War Two, life expectancy is going backwards in the poorest areas

The paper did not mention or test for the most likely explanation of the excess deaths – the strange fact that the Golden Cohort of those born immediately before the Second World War have enjoyed great longevity, are passing quickly, and the succeeding generation do not seem to be as long-lived. This same effect has been seen in in France, Austria, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands and Switzerland.

The paper extrapolates a benign trend in the run up to 2010, assuming it could have run on for years more. Such trends rarely do. It also assumes that health spending could have continued to increase as it had under New Labour.

Although the paper avoids direct political comment it cannot avoid the fact that this counterfactual was never available. The £20 billion Nicholson Challenge “cuts” had already been kicked off in 2009 by Andy Burnham and numbers of nurses in training had already been throttled back. Furthermore Alistair Darling was promising £46 billion of further cuts to public services if he was still chancellor after the 2010 election.

The BMJ paper was an exercise in statistical voodoo whose numbers have no meaning in real life.

Labour knows that talking about the NHS works well for it. At the last election it offered an impressive-sounding £37 billion to fix its problems. Last year the Conservatives promised to put in an extra £84 billion over the parliament, but even more than doubling Labour’s 2017 offer is – according to Labour – inadequate.

Labour’s bleak, feel-bad movie pulls at the heart strings and and glibly deceives.