Voters left with skewed and distorted picture of UK poverty in election campaign

A new report shows how poverty was barely mentioned by politicians in the General Election campaign – and how the most potent news stories on poverty are rarely representative. Will Moy of Full Fact explains.

Full Fact has been dealing with misunderstanding of issues around poverty (and all kinds of other topics) since we began in 2010. Our independent fact-checking highlighted misunderstanding of fraud and error statistics; ‘fit to work’ assessments; and problem families. Both the Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee and the Leveson Inquiry report highlighted this debate as a problem area based on our evidence, so it was a privilege to be funded by JRF to take a closer look.

Politicians weren’t talking about the word ‘poverty’ very much in the election, our new research shows.

We looked at the two potential Prime Ministers’ speeches during the campaign, and in our sample the word was rarely used by both Conservatives and Labour.

In fact, Ed Miliband only mentioned it once in the context of poverty in the UK. The rest of the time he was talking about poverty abroad. David Cameron tended to use the word more in the context of criticising Labour or successful action under the Coalition.

So neither party was particularly using the word ‘poverty’ to talk about a pressing issue going on in the UK now that needed to be tackled – it was something that was going away or that existed elsewhere.

Of the issues around poverty we examined, there’s a clear difference between how poverty was talked about, and how benefits were talked about.

One of the most striking findings was the dominance of public spending as the main theme used to talk about benefits, compared with the absence of this theme when discussions turned to poverty.

Reducing spending on benefits through welfare reform was posed as a necessity for reducing debt, with a risk of spiralling costs for the state if it was left unaddressed. This was central to the General Election campaign.

Meanwhile, poverty was presented as something that morally should be tackled, but with little sense that reducing poverty itself could affect public expenditure. So while welfare was portrayed as something that financially affects everyone, poverty was not.

It wasn’t always the big themes that drove the debate – it was more personal than that. For example, the story of Mike Holpin, star of ‘40 Kids by 20 Women’, appeared on the front pages of both the Mirror and the Sun during the campaign. He was reportedly running up a benefits bill into the millions.

This much-publicised case got linked to the bigger question of households getting Child Benefit for lots of children. To put that in context, about 90,000 families receiving Child Benefit had five or more children, out of a total of 7,500,000. As a proportion, that’s 1 per cent. The most potent stories are rarely representative.

As to the statistics, there are many ways of measuring poverty, and they have their uses, but politicians could and did pick the one that helped make their case and leave the rest behind.

But whether from the narratives or the numbers, we concluded that a voter would likely be left with a skewed and distorted picture on the issues around poverty we covered.

Parliamentary candidates need to make a good case, and journalists need to tell a good story with complex information under time pressure. Voters somehow need to make sense of it all and we hope this report will help expert organisations assess how they could do more to help journalists and the public.