The Independent View: An apology from 38 Degrees

On 26th March, the staff team at 38 Degrees posted an image to our Facebook page, attempting to simplify the confusing debate on pledges to fund the NHS. Unfortunately, we got the numbers jumbled up and drew criticism from several different political parties – including Lib Dems on this website. This is an apology and an attempt to explain where we went wrong.

Our graph compared NHS funding pledges for 2015-16 from the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour, against the additional £8bn of funding that NHS England says it needs by 2020. We ended up comparing apples and pears. Lib Dems quite reasonably complained that presenting the information in this way obscured their flagship pledge to match that £8bn target by 2020. Both Labour and Conservatives have avoided matching that pledge.

Labour supporters also complained. We showed the Labour figure on the graph as £2.5bn – based on their pledge of £2.5bn in the “time to care” fund. But Labour says this £2.5bn is additional funding – £2.5bn on top of what the government has already said it’ll spend. And it’s due to be realised much sooner than 2020 (though it seems it’s disputed exactly when). So they argued that their bar on the graph should have shown them £2.5bn higher than the Conservatives or Lib Dems. Meanwhile, some Green Party and UKIP supporters complained that we’d failed to feature their positions at all.

It’s extremely hard to compare like-for-like pledges on NHS funding, given the different timescales and assumptions on which each of the parties claims are based. It’s well nigh impossible to compare them through the medium of one, simple bar chart which conveys all the relevant information.

We’ve had some feedback that our error made 38 Degrees look like it has a party political agenda. That just isn’t true: we’ve always been, and will continue to be, independent. We don’t have links to any political party. As well as Lib Dems, we’ve had complaints from UKIP, Labour and Green Party people about this graph. As is often the case with 38 Degrees, we managed to annoy politicians of several different political stripes at once.

We also had feedback that we should have done more to correct the error, more quickly. Whilst we acknowledged the mistake quickly, and removed the offending image from our Facebook page, there was a delay of almost a week before we published a new facebook post  to clarify the figures.

I agree that when a mistake is made, it should be corrected in a timely way. The challenge in this case was that producing a “correct” version of the earlier flawed graph proved extremely difficult. We wanted to make sure we got it right rather than rushing and risk getting it wrong again.

As an illustration of the perils here, a few days later we did retweet a reworked version of the offending graphic produced by a Lib Dem source – a move which was welcomed on here on LDV. However, this version compared the Lib Dem’s 2020 pledge with 2015-16 figures for other parties – popular with Lib Dems but equally open to criticism from other political parties.

I suspect the author of the revised graphic probably wasn’t pursuing any deliberate pro-Lib Dem agenda when he made this new, differently flawed version. It’s just very hard to produce such a graphic, without obscuring important details in a way which will be perceived to favour some party over another. In the end we decided it was safer to abandon the graph format altogether.

We’ll try our best to avoid repeating this kind of mistake. We know how important accuracy is. 38 Degrees members have just donated tens of thousands of pounds to help FullFact fact check the election campaign. We’ve asked them to consider taking a look at NHS funding figures, to help us get it right in the future.

I do think the complexity of these pledges and the challenge of presenting them in an accessible graph does also show that the political debate on NHS funding is too murky. Politicians of all stripes have a tendency to use impressive-sounding numbers and technical announcements to make their case, in a way which can feel pretty impenetrable to the rest of us. This surely doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

At 38 Degrees, we try to cut through political debates, helping to simplify complex issues so that more people can engage with politics. That’s never more important to do than at election time, but it’s not proving an easy task with NHS funding pledges. We didn’t get it right this time and I’m sorry about that. We will keep on trying our best to make politics accessible to as many people as we can.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* David Babbs is the Executive Director of 38 Degrees.

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12 Comments

  • 38 degrees have in this case given a full apology and I think we should say thank you and move on.
    I have no doubt some people will want to reply to this to still settle some scores, which I hope will not happen
    However as a 38 Degrees member myself I do think 38 Degrees have got a problem with their reputation in being more interested in wanting their campaigns to fit in with their preferred left wing narrative rather than impartially base their campaigns on the facts.

  • Geoffrey Payne puts it well ->
    “Geoffrey Payne 6th Apr ’15 – 10:18am
    38 degrees have in this case given a full apology and I think we should say thank you and move on.”

  • This all seems perfectly reasonable. Perhaps some of 38 degrees’ critics should show the same amount of humility?

  • I sign up to a lot of online campaigns with Avaaz and others but have always been wary of 38 degrees for the reasons stated by Geoffrey Payne. I hope this welcome apology heralds a future with greater care for factual accuracy.

  • So why has 38Degrees not posted a corrected graphic on their facebook page or twitter feed?

    The original post was a quick and easy to view bar chart showing each parties’ commitments. This new post has a link to a BBC article which people have to click on and then read a page of text- hardly comparable!

    Also he is wrong. The Labour 2.5 billion pledge for the NHS is not a 2015/6 figure but their commitment of an increase funded by a mansion tax which would presumably be from 2016/7 at the earliest when revenue was raised.

    Similarly the £8bn figure that 38 degrees used in their graphic was the amount needed by 2020 with a call for parties to meet the funding need- something the Lib Dems have done. Labour have not and the Tories have not – the fact neither has said what they would do in terms of properly funding the NHS to 2020 seems irrelevant.

    Tthere seems to be a reluctance to reproduce the bar graph, perhaps because it would show the Lib Dems are the only party that are going to meet the Stevens’ challenge. As 38 Degrees are apparently not party affiliated that shouldn’t be a problem, given that this is an issue their members (and the public) care about and they were campaigning for parties to commit to.

    Mistakes happen, but the important thing is to correct them, and replacing a widely shared simple bar graph with a link to a news article you have to read 3/4 of the page of to find the correcting isn’t reasonable.

    So all in all- not good enough.

  • In this case 38 Degrees is wasting its time. All of the parties are making meaningless pledges. One, or two in the case of a coalition can later be held to account. None of the major parties are trustworthy on the NHS.

  • Good to hear them apologising, but they seem to be helping to over-simplify the debate, and losing sighted of the depth of the LibDem commitment to the NHS.

    As a PPC I rather wish they would also get their facts right before sending out emails to PPCs…. these days my reaction to each new flurry of 38 degrees emails is “What have they got wrong this a time?”, and I reply to them because the people clicking to send these probably don’t realise what is going on, and are themselves being misled.

  • Paul Valentine 6th Apr '15 - 7:44pm

    As the author of the “revised graphic” I can certainly explain my motivation.

    Firstly, the initial graphic was comparing funding commitments with the announced NHS shortfall (being the notorious £8Bn residual, not the £30Bn whole for 2015-2020) . As such, it clearly intimated no major party was matching the required commitment.

    As our party had announced it’s plans and was clear in it’s response to the Five Year Forward View, I felt confident updating our “bar” as matching the £8Bn in the NHS “bar”.

    My understanding (as a layman!) was the whole of the Tory and Labour bars were announced funding in response to this report. The few sources I turned to included a BBC and a Lancet report.

    In retrospect, the bar chart may well be politically skewed, but certainly my main aim was to counter the initial duff chart with one which suitably reflected our position.

    Other parties may now cry fowl at our misrepresentation of their position, but to be fair, it is their job to represent their position. I think Clegg stated ours on Thursday in the debate and none of the other parties took him on on this point.

    The wider issue in this election is by far the most important. Joe Public relies on pressure groups such as 38 Degrees to simplify big policy into snappy, digestible and factual content. Like it or not, we’re in the era of finite attention spans. Evidently, it is more important for facts to be checked first before submitting articles into the electronic ether where errors are routinely shared, liked or favourited.

    Im pleased to have contributed to this debate.

  • Paul Valentine 6th Apr '15 - 7:45pm

    Apologies for grammar – predictive text is another modern curse!

  • My concern with the 38 degrees model is that it allows an individual with a hobby horse to present an argument to a large group of people unchallenged. Not surprisingly most members take that argument at face value. 38 degrees as an organisation then claim to just be doing what their members want but at no point have they ensured their members are making an informed decision. As a result it’s a vicious circle of self perpetuating prejudice, akin to a tabloid newspaper or Fox News. The newspaper claims it’s printing what the readers want while the readers think they’re getting the facts because they reinforce their existing world view.

    Really they need to take a step back and before taking a position on something allow someone from either side of an issue present the full case. Only then should they allow their members to vote on whether to persue it as a campaign.

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