Abbott’s shaky abacus

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.

Political Correctness

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 ...

External link to clip

Shaky abacus

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
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
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
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
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.

LBC Radio, 2nd May 2017,

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