Numbers and costings are notoriously difficult themes during election time when the pressure to rattle off the top of the head a list of figures without so much as a “hesitation, deviation or repetition” is applied to hapless politicians who happen to find themselves on the nation’s airwaves. The cost for getting this “wrong” can be quite serious as Diane Abbott has just found out after her “car-crash” performance on LBC radio this morning with interviewer Nick Ferrari.
Abbott (DA) started out first by using the term “policemen” rather than the politically correct term “police officers”, as Nick Ferrari (NF) quickly noticed:
DA: and the tax cut will specifically identified to pay for the ten thousand policemen hhh is the cuts in capital gains tax which NF: policemen so we can’t [have police DA: [policemen police NF: we can’t have police women then DA: police men and women NF: oh that’s alright just checking= DA: =yeah right so the the the [tax NF: [strange xx to correct you Diane but do go on DA: yeah well let’s talk about ...
Numbers seem to spell disaster for many politicians speaking in public situations under pressure to perform. It seems like the extra cognitive load of recalling exact numbers, units and time periods means that only seasoned financial wizards can pull off a description of a costing without hesitating or getting something wrong. Interviewers understand this and one of the first questions they often ask is “how much will it cost?” as Ferrari does here:
NF: so how much would ten thousand police officers cost DA: well (.) erm (.) if we recruit the ten thousand police er men and women over (.) a four year period we believe it’ll be about three hundred thousand pounds (0.8) NF: three hundred thousand pounds for DA: sorry three NF: ten thousand police officers what are you paying them DA: hh no I mean (.) sorry NF: how much will they cost (1.6) DA: they will cost (1.6) they will- it will cost (1.0) ((sound of papers rustling)) erm (0.4) about (1.9) about eighty million pounds NF: about eighty million pounds DA: yeah NF: alright how do you get to that figure DA: we get to that figure because we (.) anticipate recruiting (0.7) twenty five thousand police extra police officers a year at least over a period of four years and we’re looking at both ...
Abbott’s initial mistake here is to state £300,000 instead of £300 million which, when the interviewer shows surprise, leads to hesitation and pausing by the politician. Some of the pauses are quite excruciatingly long for a political interview and the sound of papers rustling during the pauses suggest the politician is unsure herself as she searches her notes (the interview is a radio interview and we cannot observe Abbott).
This hesitation continues later when the interviewer turns the discussion into a challenge of division:
NF: I don’t understand if you divide eight million by ten thousand (0.8) you get eight thousand (0.8) DA: hh what we’re talk- NF: is that what you’re going to pay these police men and women DA: no we’re talking about erm er an acc- a a process over four years (0.8) NF: I don’t understand wha- what is he or she get eighty million er divided by ten thousand equals eight thousand (1.0) so I er hh what are these police officers going to be paid (3.3) ((sound of papers rustling)) DA: we will be paying them the average NF: has this been thought through DF: of course it’s been thought through NF: well where are the figures DF: the figures are that (0.7) the the additional cost in year one when we anticipate recruiting two hundred and about two hundred and fifty thousand policemen will be sixty four point three million the NF: two hundred and fifty thousand police men DA: and women (.) NF: so you’re you’re getting more than ten thousand you’re recruiting two hundred and fifty thousand DA: no we’re we are recruiting (.) two thousand and perhaps two hundred and fifty hh and the cost NF: so where did where did two hundred and fifty thousand come from DA: I think you said that not me NF: no no you- (.) er I can assure you you said that cos I wrote it down
Stating numbers are figures is never easy at the best of times but under the pressure to perform during an election briefing on a new policy even the slightest of hesitation can lead to charges of confusion and chaos as the headlines from the fallout of this interview seem to suggest.