How to Select Your Statistic to Reinforce Your Political Bias

This article in the British Evening Standard is a fascinating lesson in how to manipulate statistics to serve a political bias. The article is about the head of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, who is extremely controversial because of his far-left socialist politics. A large portion of the narrative around Corbyn in the conservative British press has been that he is supposedly “too radical” for the country. The argument conservatives make is that by selecting Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the Labour party has discredited itself with mainstream voters and committed electoral suicide.

The Evening Standard article offers a headline that appears to offer hard data to support this conclusion. The headline reads: Dump Jeremy Corbyn before election, say 42% of voters, and the article indeed gives poll results showing that 42% of surveyed adults believed the Labour party should get rid of Corbyn. The first paragraph of the article also reports, accurately, that only 31% of people disagreed, meaning that more people think Jeremy Corbyn should go than stay.

But look at the chart reporting the statistics, for these are not the only numbers we have. There, we see that in a poll taken last summer during the tenure of Jeremy Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, 49% of people believed Miliband should go, versus 30% that he should stay. Now, consider the fact that British conservatives believed Ed Miliband lost the election because he was “too far to the left.” These commentators, who include Tony Blair, believed that if Miliband was too far left for the country, then Corbyn was way too far left, hence the argument that a Corbyn leadership would take the party off a cliff.

But what the poll results in the Evening Standard show is that fewer voters want to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn than wanted to get rid of Ed Miliband. One could just as easily write an article with the same poll results using the headline “Corbyn already outstrips Miliband in popularity,” and write an article about how, despite having been in office only a month, Jeremy Corbyn has already managed to have more voters want to keep him than Ed Miliband, completely destroying the narrative that he’s more fringe than Miliband was.

The real place the bias of the Evening Standard shows, though, is in the way it reports the 42% statistic instead of the same poll’s measure of the satisfaction ratings for Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister David Cameron. As you can see in the chart, the poll asked whether people were “satisfied” with the way each was doing his job. For David Cameron, 42% were satisfied versus 51% dissatisfied. For Jeremy Corbyn, 37% were satisfied versus 39% dissatisfied. For both men, then, more people are dissatisfied than satisfied. But the chart shows that David Cameron has a favorability rating of -9%, while Jeremy Corbyn has a favorability rating of -2%. Cameron’s ratio of dissatisfied people to satisfied people is far higher than Corbyn’s.

These poll results are actually extremely encouraging for Corbyn. More than half the country thinks David Cameron is doing a bad job, while only 39% of the country thinks Corbyn is! Look at how many more people were undecided on Corbyn than on Cameron. 24% of people didn’t say satisfied or unsatisfied. That means that Corbyn has a huge opportunity to win people over who haven’t made their minds up about him yet. Cameron, on the other hand, faces the challenge of trying to recapture the opinions of the more than half the country that thinks he is doing a bad job.

Setting aside the fact that these numbers are actually hopeful for Corbyn, they certainly should make us far more cautious about concluding that Corbyn is some fringe radical who has turned off the entire electorate. That’s just clearly untrue. In fact, he’s viewed more favorably than David Cameron.

So what we can see here is the biased selection of statistics in action. The Evening Standard, a conservative newspaper, intentionally tries to manipulate its readers into thinking things are going worse for Corbyn than they are. They put the damaging statistics at the front, and bury the positive ones, because by doing this they can pretend that the “too radical” argument is correct, when it is in fact incorrect by their very own measures. This is propaganda, not journalism.

Note that I don’t think the headline should be “Corbyn’s favorability ratings exceed Cameron’s” either; choosing the pro-Labour statistic is just as bad. The balanced headline would say something like “Corbyn viewed less negatively than Cameron, but 42% of voters still want him to go.” But of course, that’s still a bit pro-Conservative, because that 42% is really pretty meaningless without context. Note that it’s a general poll of adults, not a poll of Labour supporters. So of course that 42% is probably going to be made up of a majority of Conservative voters. Some of those will want Corbyn to stay (because they think he’s unelectable) and some of them will want him to go (because he’s a socialist), but it’s really hard to give meaning to the 42% without more in-depth data. Probably shouldn’t report it as a headline no matter what.

(By the way, the Evening Standard is not alone in selectively reporting poll results to make them appear less favorable to Corbyn than they actually are. Richard Seymour has a breakdown of a similarly manipulative exercise that took place in the Independent last month, who reported that Jeremy Corbyn had “lost a fifth of Labour voters” without mentioning that many more people were likely to enter the Labour party because of Corbyn than leave it.)